The Man Shakespeare
Part 6 out of 7
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after-wrath. Husband, I come,
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life."
The whole speech is miraculous in speed of mounting emotion, and when
Iras dies first, this Cleopatra finds again the perfect word in which
truth and beauty meet:
"This proves me base:
If she first meet the curled Antony
He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
Which is my heaven to have. Come, thou mortal wretch,
[To the asp, which she applies to her breast.]
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool,
Be angry, and despatch. O, could'st thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar, ass
The characteristic high temper of Mary Fitton breaking out again--"ass
unpolicied"--and then the end:
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?"
The final touch is of soft pleasure:
"As sweet a balm, as soft as air, as gentle,--
Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too.
[Applying another asp to her arm.]
What should I stay--"
For ever fortunate in her self-inflicted death Cleopatra thereby frees
herself from the ignominy of certain of her actions: she is woman at
once and queen, and if she cringes lower than other women, she rises,
too, to higher levels than other women know. The historical fact of her
self-inflicted death forced the poet to make false Cressid a
Cleopatra--and his wanton gipsy-mistress was at length redeemed by a
passion of heroic resolve. The majority of critics are still debating
whether indeed Cleopatra is the "dark lady" of the sonnets or not.
Professor Dowden puts forward the theory as a daring conjecture; but the
identity of the two cannot be doubted. It is impossible not to notice
that Shakespeare makes Cleopatra, who was a fair Greek, gipsy-dark like
his sonnet-heroine. He says, too, of the "dark lady" of the sonnets:
"Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill,
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?"
Enobarbus praises Cleopatra in precisely the same words:
Become themselves in her."
Antony, too, uses the same expression:
"Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom everything becomes--to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired."
These professors have no distinct mental image of the "dark lady" or of
Cleopatra, or they would never talk of "daring conjecture" in regard to
this simple identification. The points of likeness are numberless.
Ninety-nine poets and dramatists out of a hundred would have followed
Plutarch and made Cleopatra's love for Antony the mainspring of her
being, the causa causans of her self-murder. Shakespeare does not
do this; he allows the love of Antony to count with her, but it is
imperious pride and hatred of degradation that compel his Cleopatra to
embrace the Arch-fear. And just this same quality of pride is attributed
to the "dark lady." Sonnet 131 begins:
"Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel."
Both are women of infinite cunning and small regard for faith or truth;
hearts steeled with an insane pride, and violent tempers suited with
scolding slanderous tongues. Prolonged analysis is not needed. A point
of seeming difference between them establishes their identity. Cleopatra
is beautiful, "a lass unparalleled," as Charmian calls her, and
accordingly we can believe that all emotions became her, and that when
hopping on the street or pretending to die she was alike be-witching;
beauty has this magic. But how can all things become a woman who is not
beautiful, whose face some say "hath not the power to make love groan,"
who cannot even blind the senses with desire? And yet the "dark lady" of
the sonnets who is thus described, has the "powerful might" of
personality in as full measure as Egypt's queen. The point of seeming
unlikeness is as convincing as any likeness could be; the peculiarities
of both women are the same and spring from the same dominant quality.
Cleopatra is cunning, wily, faithless, passionately unrestrained in
speech and proud as Lucifer, and so is the sonnet-heroine. We may be
sure that the faithlessness, scolding, and mad vanity of his mistress
were defects in Shakespeare's eyes as in ours; these, indeed, were "the
things ill" which nevertheless became her. What Shakespeare loved in her
was what he himself lacked or possessed in lesser degree--that daemonic
power of personality which he makes Enobarbus praise in Cleopatra and
which he praises directly in the sonnet-heroine. Enobarbus says of
"I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street,
And, having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth."
One would be willing to wager that Shakespeare is here recalling a
performance of his mistress; but it is enough for my purpose now to draw
attention to the unexpectedness of the attribute "power." The sonnet
fastens on the same word:
"O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?"
In the same sonnet he again dwells upon her "strength": she was bold,
too, to unreason, and of unbridled tongue, for, "twice forsworn
herself," she had yet urged his "amiss," though guilty of the same
fault. What he admired most in her was force of character. Perhaps the
old saying held in her case: ex forti dulcedo; perhaps her
confident strength had abandonments more flattering and complete than
those of weaker women; perhaps in those moments her forceful dark face
took on a soulful beauty that entranced his exquisite susceptibility;
perhaps--but the suppositions are infinite.
Though a lover and possessed by his mistress Shakespeare was still an
artist. In the sonnets he brings out her overbearing will, boldness,
pride--the elemental force of her nature; in the play, on the other
hand, while just mentioning her "power," he lays the chief stress upon
the cunning wiles and faithlessness of her whose trade was love. But
just as Cleopatra has power, so there can be no doubt of the wily
cunning--"the warrantise of skill"--of the sonnet-heroine, and no doubt
her faithlessness was that "just cause of hate" which Shakespeare
It is worth while here to notice his perfect comprehension of the powers
and limits of the different forms of his art. Just as he has used the
sonnets in order to portray certain intimate weaknesses and maladies of
his own nature that he could not present dramatically without making his
hero ridiculously effeminate, so also he used the sonnets to convey to
us the domineering will and strength of his mistress--qualities which if
presented dramatically would have seemed masculine-monstrous.
By taking the sonnets and the play together we get an excellent portrait
of Shakespeare's mistress. In person she was probably tall and vain of
her height, as Cleopatra is vain of her superiority in this respect to
Octavia, with dark complexion, black eyebrows and hair, and pitch-black
eyes that mirrored emotion as the lakelet mirrors the ever-changing
skies; her cheeks are "damask'd white"; her breath fragrant with health,
her voice melodious, her movements full of dignity--a superb gipsy to
whom beauty may be denied but not distinction.
If we have a very good idea of her person we have a still better idea of
her mind and soul. I must begin by stating that I do not accept
implicitly Shakespeare's angry declarations that his mistress was a mere
strumpet. A nature of great strength and pride is seldom merely wanton;
but the fact stands that Shakespeare makes a definite charge of
faithlessness against his mistress; she is, he tells us, "the bay where
all men ride"; no "several plot," but "the wide world's common place."
The accusation is most explicit. But if it were well founded why should
he devote two sonnets (135 and 136) to imploring her to be as liberal as
the sea and to receive his love-offering as well as the tributes of
"Among a number one is reckon'd none
Then in the number let me pass untold."
It is plain that Mistress Fitton drew away from Shakespeare after she
had given herself to his friend, and this fact throws some doubt upon
his accusations of utter wantonness. A true "daughter of the game," as
he says in "Troilus and Cressida," is nothing but "a sluttish spoil of
opportunity" who falls to Troilus or to Diomedes in turn, knowing no
reserve. It must be reckoned to the credit of Mary Fitton, or to her
pride, that she appears to have been faithful to her lover for the time
being, and able to resist even the solicitings of Shakespeare. But her
desires seem to have been her sole restraint, and therefore we must add
an extraordinary lewdness to that strength, pride, and passionate temper
which Shakespeare again and again attributes to her. Her boldness is so
reckless that she shows her love for his friend even before
Shakespeare's face; she knows no pity in her passion, and always defends
herself by attacking her accuser. But she is cunning in love's ways and
dulls Shakespeare's resentment with "I don't hate you." Unwilling
perhaps to lose her empire over him and to forego the sweetness of his
honeyed flatteries, she blinded him to her faults by occasional
caresses. Yet this creature, with the soul of a strumpet, the tongue of
a fishwife and the "proud heart" of a queen, was the crown and flower of
womanhood to Shakespeare, his counterpart and ideal. Hamlet in love with
Cleopatra, the poet lost in desire of the wanton--that is the tragedy of
In this wonderful world of ours great dramatic writers are sure to have
dramatic lives. Again and again in his disgrace Antony cries:
"Whither hast thou led me, Egypt?"
Shakespeare's passion for Mary Fitton led him to shame and madness and
despair; his strength broke down under the strain and he never won back
again to health. He paid the price of passion with his very blood. It is
Shakespeare and not Antony who groans:
"O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,--
* * * * *
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguil'd me to the very heart of loss."
Shakespeare's love for Mary Fitton is to me one of the typical tragedies
of life--a symbol for ever. In its progress through the world genius is
inevitably scourged and crowned with thorns and done to death;
inevitably, I say, for the vast majority of men hate and despise what is
superior to them: Don Quixote, too, was trodden into the mire by the
swine. But the worst of it is that genius suffers also through its own
excess; is bound, so to speak, to the stake of its own passionate
sensibilities, and consumed, as with fire.
THE DRAMA OF MADNESS: "LEAR"
Ever since Lessing and Goethe it has been the fashion to praise
Shakespeare as a demi-god; whatever he wrote is taken to be the rose of
perfection. This senseless hero-worship, which reached idolatry in the
superlatives of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" and elsewhere in England,
was certain to provoke reaction, and the reaction has come to vigorous
expression in Tolstoi, who finds nothing to praise in any of
Shakespeare's works, and everything to blame in most of them, especially
in "Lear." Lamb and Coleridge, on the other hand, have praised "Lear" as
a world's masterpiece. Lamb says of it:
"While we read it, we see not Lear; but we are Lear,--we are in his
mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of
daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason we discover a
mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodised from the ordinary
purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind bloweth where it
listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind."
Coleridge calls "Lear," "the open and ample playground of Nature's
These dithyrambs show rather the lyrical power of the writers than the
Tolstoi, on the other hand, keeps his eyes on the object, and sets
himself to describe the story of "Lear" "as impartially as possible." He
says of the first scene:
"Not to mention the pompous, characterless language
of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's kings
speak, the reader or spectator cannot conceive that a
king, however old and stupid he may be, could believe
the words of the vicious daughters with whom he had
passed his whole life, and not believe his favourite
daughter, but curse and banish her; and therefore, the
spectator or reader cannot share the feelings of the
persons participating in this unnatural scene."
He goes on to condemn the scene between Gloucester and his sons in the
same way. The second act he describes as "absurdly foolish." The third
act is "spoiled, by the characteristic Shakespearean language." The
fourth act is "marred in the making," and of the fifth act, he says:
"Again begin Lear's awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at
unsuccessful jokes." He sums up in these words:
"Such is this celebrated drama. However absurd it
may appear in my rendering (which I have endeavoured
to make as impartial as possible), I may confidently say
that in the original it is yet more absurd. For any man
of our time--if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion
that this drama is the height of perfection--it would
be enough to read it to its end (were he to have sufficient
patience for this) in order to be convinced that, far from
being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly-composed
production, which, if it could have been of
interest to a certain public at a certain time, cannot evoke
amongst us anything but aversion and weariness. Every
reader of our time who is free from the influence of suggestion
will also receive exactly the same impression from
all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention
the senseless dramatized tales, 'Pericles,' 'Twelfth
Night,' 'The Tempest,' 'Cymbeline,' and 'Troilus and
Every one must admit, I think, that what Tolstoi has said of the
hypothesis of the play is justified. Shakespeare, as I have shown, was
nearly always an indifferent playwright, careless of the architectural
construction of his pieces, contemptuous of stage-craft. So much had
already been said in England, if not with the authority of Tolstoi.
It may be conceded, too, that the language which Shakespeare puts into
Lear's mouth in the first act is "characterless and pompous," even
silly; but Tolstoi should have noticed that as soon as Lear realizes the
ingratitude of his daughters, his language becomes more and more simple
and pathetic. Shakespeare's kings are apt to rant and mouth when first
introduced; he seems to have thought pomp of speech went with royal
robes; but when the action is engaged even his monarchs speak naturally.
The truth is, that just as the iambics of Greek drama were lifted above
ordinary conversation, so Shakespeare's language, being the language
mainly of poetic and romantic drama, is a little more measured and, if
you will, more pompous than the small talk of everyday life, which seems
to us, accustomed as we are to prose plays, more natural. Shakespeare,
however, in his blank verse, reaches heights which are not often reached
by prose, and when he pleases, his verse becomes as natural-easy as any
prose, even that of Tolstoi himself. Tolstoi finds everything Lear says
"pompous," "artificial," "unnatural," but Lear's words:
"Pray do not mock me,
I am a very foolish-fond old man
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less,
And, to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind."
touch us poignantly, just because of their childish simplicity; we feel
as if Lear, in them, had reached the heart of pathos. Tolstoi, I am
afraid, has missed all the poetry of Lear, all the deathless phrases.
"I am a man,
More sinn'd against than sinning,"
and the new-coined phrase passed at once into the general currency. Who,
too, can ever forget his description of the poor?
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?"
The like of that "looped and windowed raggedness" is hardly to be found
in any other literature. In the fourth and fifth acts Lear's language is
simplicity itself, and even in that third act which Tolstoi condemns as
"incredibly pompous and artificial," we find him talking naturally:
"Ha! here 's three on's are sophisticated: thou art
the thing itself, unaccommodated man is no more but
such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art."
There is still another reason why some of us cannot read "Lear" with the
cold eyes of reason, contemptuously critical. "Lear" marks a stage in
Shakespeare's agony. We who know the happy ingenuousness of his youth
undimmed by doubts of man or suspicions of woman, cannot help
sympathizing with him when we see him cheated and betrayed, drinking the
bitter cup of disillusion to the dregs. In "Lear" the angry brooding
leads to madness; and it is only fitting that the keynote of the
tragedy, struck again and again, should be the cry.
"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet Heaven!
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad."
"Lear" is the first attempt in all literature to paint madness, and not
the worst attempt.
In "Lear," Shakespeare was intent on expressing his own disillusion and
naked misery. How blind Lear must have been, says Tolstoi; how
incredibly foolish not to know his daughters better after living with
them for twenty years; but this is just what Shakespeare wishes to
express: How blind I was, he cries to us, how inconceivably trusting and
foolish! How could I have imagined that a young noble would be grateful,
or a wanton true? "Lear" is a page of Shakespeare's autobiography, and
the faults of it are the stains of his blistering tears.
"Lear" is badly constructed, but worse was to come. The next tragedy,
"Timon," is merely a scream of pain, and yet it, too, has a deeper than
artistic interest for us as marking the utmost limit of Shakespeare's
suffering. The mortal malady of perhaps the finest spirit that has ever
appeared among men has an interest for us profounder than any tragedy.
And to find that in Shakespeare's agony and bloody sweat he ignores the
rules of artistry is simply what might have been expected, and, to some
of us, deepens the personal interest in the drama.
In "Lear" Edgar is peculiarly Shakespeare's mouthpiece, and to Edgar
Shakespeare gives some of the finest words he ever coined:
"The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us."
Here, too, in what Edgar says of himself, is the moral of all passion:
it is manifestly Shakespeare's view of himself:
"A most poor man, made tame to Fortune's blows,
Who by the art of knowing and feeling sorrows
Am pregnant to good pity."
Then we find the supreme phrase--perhaps the finest ever written:
"Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all."
Shakespeare speaks through Lear in the last acts as plainly as through
Edgar. In the third scene of the fifth act Lear talks to Cordelia in the
very words Shakespeare gave to the saint Henry VI. at the beginning of
his career. Compare the extracts on pages 118-9 with the following
passage, and you will see the similarity and the astounding growth in
"... Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; ..."
More characteristic still of Shakespeare is the fact that when Lear is
at his bitterest in the fourth act, he shows the erotic mania which is
the source of all Shakespeare's bitterness and misery; but which is
utterly out of place in Lear. The reader will mark how "adultery" is
"... Ay, every inch a king:
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to 't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; ...
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends'; ..."
Thus Lear raves for a whole page: Shakespeare on his hobby: in the same
erotic spirit he makes both Goneril and Regan lust after Edmund.
The note of this tragedy is Shakespeare's understanding of his insane
blind trust in men; but the passion of it springs from erotic mania and
from the consciousness that he is too old for love's lists. Perhaps his
imagination never carried him higher than when Lear appeals to the
heavens because they too are old:
"... O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause."
THE DRAMA OF DESPAIR: "TIMON OF ATHENS"
"Timon" marks the extremity of Shakespeare's suffering. It is not to be
called a work of art, it is hardly even a tragedy; it is the causeless
ruin of a soul, a ruin insufficiently motived by complete trust in men
and spendthrift generosity. If there was ever a man who gave so lavishly
as Timon, if there was ever one so senseless blind in trusting, then he
deserved his fate. There is no gradation in his giving, and none in his
fall; no artistic crescendo. The whole drama is, as I have said, a
scream of suffering, or rather, a long curse upon all the ordinary
conditions of life. The highest qualities of Shakespeare are not to be
found in the play. There are none of the magnificent phrases which
bejewel "Lear"; little of high wisdom, even in the pages which are
indubitably Shakespeare's, and no characterization worth mentioning. The
honest steward, Flavius, is the honest Kent again of "Lear," honest and
loyal beyond nature; Apemantus is another Thersites. Words which throw a
high light on Shakespeare's character are given to this or that
personage of the play without discrimination. One phrase of Apemantus is
as true of Shakespeare as of Timon and is worth noting:
"The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends."
The tragic sonnet-note is given to Flavius:
"What viler thing upon the earth than friends
Who can bring noblest minds to basest ends!"
In so far as Timon is a character at all he is manifestly Shakespeare,
Shakespeare who raves against the world, because he finds no honesty in
men, no virtue in women, evil everywhere--"boundless thefts in limited
professions." This Shakespeare-Timon swings round characteristically as
soon as he finds that Flavius is honest:
"Had I a steward
So true, so just, and now so comfortable?
It almost turns my dangerous nature mild.
Let me behold thy face. Surely this man
Was born of woman.
Forgive my general and exceptless rashness,
You perpetual-sober gods! I do proclaim
One honest man--mistake me not--but one ..."
I cannot help putting the great and self-revealing line [Footnote: This
passage is among those rejected by the commentators as un-Shakespearean:
"it does not stand the test," says the egregious Gollancz.] in italics;
a line Tolstoi would, no doubt, think stupid-pompous. Timon ought to
have known his steward, one might say in Tolstoi's spirit, as Lear
should have known his daughters; but this is still the tragedy, which
Shakespeare wishes to emphasize that his hero was blind in trusting.
Towards the end Shakespeare speaks through Timon quite unfeignedly:
Richard II. said characteristically:
"Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing:"
And Timon says to Flavius:
"My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend
And nothing brings me all things."
Then the end:
"Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood...."
We must not leave this play before noticing the overpowering erotic
strain in Shakespeare which suits Timon as little as it suited Lear. The
long discussion with Phrynia and Timandra is simply dragged in: neither
woman is characterized: Shakespeare-Timon eases himself in pages of
"... Strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself's a bawd:..."
In hollow bones of man...........
...............Down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away ..."
The "damned earth" even is "the common whore of mankind."
"Timon" is the true sequel to "The Merchant of Venice." Antonio gives
lavishly, but is saved at the crisis by his friends. Timon gives with
both hands, but when he appeals to his friends, is treated as a bore.
Shakespeare had travelled far in the dozen years which separate the two
All Shakespeare's tragedies are phases of his own various weaknesses,
and each one brings the hero to defeat and ruin. Hamlet cannot carry
revenge to murder and fails through his own irresolution. Othello comes
to grief through mad jealousy. Antony fails and falls through excess of
lust; Lear through trust in men, and Timon through heedless generosity.
All these are separate studies of Shakespeare's own weaknesses; but the
ruin is irretrievable, and reaches its ultimate in Timon. Trust and
generosity, Shakespeare would like to tell us, were his supremest
faults. In this he deceived himself. Neither "Lear" nor "Timon" is his
greatest tragedy; but "Antony and Cleopatra," for lust was his chief
weakness, and the tragedy of lust his greatest play.
Much of "Timon" is not Shakespeare's, the critics tell us, and some of
it is manifestly not his, though many of the passages rejected with the
best reason have, I think, been touched up by him. The second scene of
the first act is as bad as bad can be; but I hear his voice in the line:
"Methinks, I could deal kingdoms to my friends,
And ne'er be weary."
At any rate, this is the keynote of the tragedy, which is struck again
and again. Shakespeare probably exaggerated his generosity out of
aristocratic pose; but that he was careless of money and freehanded to a
fault, is, I think, certain from his writings, and can be proved from
the facts known to us of his life.
SHAKESPEARE'S LAST ROMANCES: ALL COPIES.
"Winters Tale": "Cymbeline": "The Tempest."
The wheel has swung full circle: Timon is almost as weak as "Titus
Andronicus"; the pen falls from the nerveless hand. Shakespeare wrote
nothing for some time. Even the critics make a break after "Timon,"
which closes what they are pleased to call his third period; but they do
not seem to see that the break was really a breakdown in health. In
"Lear" he had brooded and raged to madness; in "Timon" he had spent
himself in futile, feeble cursings. His nerves had gone to pieces. He
was now forty-five years of age, the forces of youth and growth had left
him. He was prematurely old and feeble.
His recovery, it seems certain, was very slow, and he never again, if I
am right, regained vigorous health, I am almost certain he went down to
Stratford at this crisis and spent some time there, probably a couple of
years, trying, no doubt, to staunch the wound in his heart, and win back
again to life. The fear of madness had frightened him from brooding: he
made up his mind to let the dead past bury its dead; he would try to
forget and live sanely. After all, life is better than death.
It was probably his daughter who led him back from the brink of the
grave. Almost all his latest works show the same figure of a young girl.
He seems now, for the first time, to have learned that a maiden can be
pure, and in his old idealizing way which went with him to the end, he
deified her. Judith became a symbol to him, and he lent her the ethereal
grace of abstract beauty. In "Pericles" she is Marina; in "The Winter's
Tale" Perdita; in "The Tempest" Miranda. It is probable when one comes
to think of it, that Ward was right when he says that Shakespeare spent
his "elder years" in Stratford; he was too broken to have taken up his
life in London again.
The assertion that Shakespeare broke down in health, and never won back
to vigorous life, will be scorned as my imagining. The critics who have
agreed to regard "Cymbeline," "The Winter's Tale," and "The Tempest" as
his finest works are all against me on this point, and they will call
for "Proofs, proofs. Give us proofs," they will cry, "that the man who
went mad and raved with Lear, and screamed and cursed in "Timon" did
really break down, and was not imagining madness and despair." The
proofs are to be found in these works themselves, plain for all men to
The three chief works of his last period are romances and are all
copies; he was too tired to invent or even to annex; his own story is
the only one that interests him. The plot of "The Winter's Tale" is the
plot of "Much Ado about Nothing." Hero is Hermione. Another phase of
"Much Ado About Nothing" is written out at length in "Cymbeline"; Imogen
suffers like Hero and Hermione, under unfounded accusation. It is
Shakespeare's own history turned from this world to fairyland: what
would have happened, he asks, if the woman whom I believed false, had
been true? This, the theme of "Much Ado," is the theme also of "The
Winter's Tale" and of "Cymbeline." The idealism of the man is
inveterate: he will not see that it was his own sensuality which gave
him up to suffering, and not Mary Fitton's faithlessness. "The Tempest"
is the story of "As you Like it." We have again the two dukes, the
exiled good Duke, who is Shakespeare, and the bad usurping Duke,
Shakespeare's rival, Chapman, who has conquered for a time. Shakespeare
is no longer able or willing to discover a new play: he can only copy
himself, and in one of the scenes which he wrote into "Henry VIII." the
copy is slavish.
I allude to the third scene in the second act; the dialogue between Anne
Bullen and the Old Lady is extraordinarily reminiscent. When Anne Bullen
"'Tis better to be lowly born,
And range with humble livers in content,
Than to be perk'd up in a glistering grief
And wear a golden sorrow"
I am reminded of Henry VI. And the contention between Anne Bullen and
the Old Lady, in which Anne Bullen declares that she would not be a
queen, and the Old Lady scorns her:
"Beshrew me, I would,
And venture maidenhead for't; and so would you,
For all this spice of your hypocrisy."
is much the same contention, and is handled in the same way as the
contention between Desdemona and Emilia in "Othello."
There are many other proofs of Shakespeare's weakness of hand throughout
this last period, if further proofs were needed. The chief
characteristics of Shakespeare's health are his humour, his gaiety, and
wit--his love of life. A correlative characteristic is that all his
women are sensuous and indulge in coarse expressions in and out of
season. This is said to be a fault of his time; but only professors
could use an argument which shows such ignorance of life. Homer was
clean enough, and Sophocles, Spenser, too; sensuality is a quality of
the individual man. Still another characteristic of Shakespeare's
maturity is that his characters, in spite of being idealized, live for
us a vigorous, pulsing life.
All these characteristics are lacking in the works after "Timon." There
is practically no humour, no wit, the clowns even are merely
boorish-stupid with the solitary exception of Autolycus, who is a pale
reflex of one or two characteristics of Falstaff. Shakespeare's humour
has disappeared, or is so faint as scarcely to be called humour; all the
heroines, too, are now vowed away from sensuality: Marina passes through
the brothel unsoiled; Perdita might have milk in her veins, and not
blood, and Miranda is but another name for Perdita. Imogen, too, has no
trace of natural passion in her: she is a mere washing-list, so to
speak, of sexless perfections. In this last period Shakespeare will have
nothing to do with sensuality, and his characters, and not the female
characters alone, are hardly more than abstractions; they lack the blood
of emotion; there is not one of them could cast a shadow. How is it that
the critics have mistaken these pale, bloodless silhouettes for
In his earliest works he was compelled, as we have seen, to use his own
experiences perpetually, not having had any experience of life, and in
these, his latest plays, he also uses when he can his own experiences to
give his pictures of the world from which he had withdrawn, some sense
of vivid life. For example, in "Winter's Tale" his account of the death
of the boy Mamillius is evidently a reflex of his own emotion when he
lost his son, Hamnet, an emotion which at the time he pictured
deathlessly in Arthur and the grief of the Queen-mother Constance.
Similarly, in "Cymbeline," the joy of the brothers in finding the sister
is an echo of his own pleasure in getting to know his daughter.
I have an idea about the genesis of these last three plays as regards
their order which may be wholly false, though true, I am sure, to
Shakespeare's character. I imagine he was asked by the author to touch
up "Pericles." On reading the play, he saw the opportunity of giving
expression to the new emotion which had been awakened in him by the
serious sweet charm of his young daughter, and accordingly he wrote the
scenes in which Marina figures. Judith's modesty was a perpetual wonder
His success induced him to sketch out "The Winter's Tale," in which tale
he played sadly with what might have been if his accused love, Mary
Fitton, had been guiltless instead of guilty. I imagine he saw that the
play was not a success, or supreme critic as he was, that his hand had
grown weak, and seeking for the cause he probably came to the conclusion
that the comparative failure was due to the fact that he did not put
himself into "The Winter's Tale," and so he determined in the next play
to draw a full-length portrait of himself again, as he had done in
"Hamlet," and accordingly he sketched Posthumus, a staider, older,
idealized Hamlet, with lymph in his veins, instead of blood. In the same
idealizing spirit, he pictured his rose of womanhood for us in Imogen,
who is, however, not a living woman at all, any more than his earliest
ideal, Juliet, was a woman. The contrast between these two sketches is
the contrast between Shakespeare's strength and his weakness. Here is
how the fourteen-year-old Juliet talks of love:
"Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties."
And here what Posthumus says of Imogen:
"Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain'd,
And pray'd me oft forbearance: did it with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet view on't
Might well have warmed old Saturn."
Neither of these statements is very generally true: but the second is
out of character. When Shakespeare praises restraint in love he must
have been very weak; in full manhood he prayed for excess of it, and
regarded a surfeit as the only rational cure.
I think Shakespeare liked Posthumus and Imogen; but he could not have
thought "Cymbeline" a great work, and so he pulled himself together for
a masterpiece. He seems to have said to himself, "All that fighting of
Posthumus is wrong; men do not fight at forty-eight; I will paint myself
simply in the qualities I possess now; I will tell the truth about
myself so far as I can." The result is the portrait of Prospero in "The
Let me just say before I begin to study Prospero that I find the
introduction of the Masque in the fourth act extraordinarily
interesting. Ben Jonson had written classic masques for this and that
occasion; masques which were very successful, we are told; they had
"caught on," in fact, to use our modern slang. Shakespeare will now show
us that he, too, can write a masque with classic deities in it, and
better Jonson's example. It is pitiful, and goes to prove, I think, that
Shakespeare was but little esteemed by his generation.
Jonson answered him conceitedly, as Jonson would, in the Introduction to
his "Bartholomew Fair" (1612-14), "If there be never a Servant
monster i' the Fayre, who can help it, he sayes; nor a nest of
Antiques. He is loth to make nature afraid in his Playes,
like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like
At the very end, the creator of Hamlet, the finest mind in the world,
was eager to show that he could write as well in any style as the author
of "Every Man in his Humour." To me the bare fact is full of interest,
and most pitiful.
Let us now turn to "The Tempest," and see how our poet figures in it. It
is Shakespeare's last work, and one of his very greatest; his testament
to the English people; in wisdom and high poetry a miracle.
The portrait of Shakespeare we get in Prospero is astonishingly faithful
and ingenuous, in spite of its idealization. His life's day is waning to
the end; shadows of the night are drawing in upon him, yet he is the
same bookish, melancholy student, the lover of all courtesies and
generosities, whom we met first as Biron in "Love's Labour's Lost." The
gaiety is gone and the sensuality; the spiritual outlook is infinitely
sadder--that is what the years have done with our gentle Shakespeare.
Prospero's first appearance in the second scene of the first act is as a
loving father and magician; he says to Miranda:
"I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one! thee, my daughter."
He asks Miranda what she can remember of her early life, and reaches
"What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?"
Miranda is only fifteen years of age. Shakespeare turned Juliet, it will
be remembered, from a girl of sixteen into one of fourteen; now, though
the sensuality has left him, he makes Miranda only fifteen; clearly he
is the same admirer of girlish youth at forty-eight as he was twenty
years before. Then Prospero tells Miranda of himself and his brother,
the "perfidious" Duke:
"And Prospero, the prime Duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study."
He will not only be a Prince now, but a master "without a parallel" in
the liberal arts. He must explain, too, at undue length, how he allowed
himself to be supplanted by his false brother, and speaks about himself
in Shakespeare's very words:
"I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicate
To closeness, and the bettering of my mind
With that, which, but by being so retired,
O'erprized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature: and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him,
A falsehood, in its contrary as great
As my trust was; which had, indeed, no limit,
A confidence sans bound."
Shakespeare, too, "neglecting worldly ends," had dedicated himself to
"bettering of his mind," we may be sure. Prospero goes on to tell us
explicitly how Shakespeare loved books, which we were only able to infer
from his earlier plays:
"Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough."
And again, Gonzalo (another name for Kent and Flavius) having given him
some books, he says:
"Of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me
From my own library, with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom."
His daughter grieves lest she had been a trouble to him: forthwith
"O, a cherubim
Thou wast, that did preserve me. Thou didst smile
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck'd the sea with drops full salt
Under my burden groan'd; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue."
But why should the magician weep or groan under a burden? had he no
confidence in his miraculous powers? All this is Shakespeare's
confession. Every word is true; his daughter did indeed "preserve"
Shakespeare, and enable him to bear up under the burden of life's
No wonder Prospero begins to apologize for this long-winded confession,
which indeed is "most impertinent" to the play, as he admits, though
most interesting to him and to us, for he is simply Shakespeare telling
us his own feelings at the time. The gentle magician then hears from
Ariel how the shipwreck has been conducted without harming a hair of
The whole scene is an extraordinarily faithful and detailed picture of
Shakespeare's soul. I find significance even in the fact that Ariel
wants his freedom "a full year" before the term Prospero had originally
proposed. Shakespeare finished "The Tempest," I believe, and therewith
set the seal on his life's work a full year earlier than he had
intended; he feared lest death might surprise him before he had put the
pinnacle on his work. Ariel's torment, too, is full of meaning for me;
for Ariel is Shakespeare's "shaping spirit of imagination," who was once
the slave of "a foul witch," and by her "imprisoned painfully" for "a
That "dozen years" is to me astonishingly true and interesting: it shows
that my reading of the duration of his passion-torture was absolutely
correct--Shakespeare's "delicate spirit" and best powers bound to Mary
Fitton's "earthy" service from 1597 to 1608.
We can perhaps fix this latter date with some assurance. Mistress Fitton
married for the second time a Captain or Mr. Polwhele late in 1607, or
some short time before March, 1608, when the fact of her recent marriage
was recorded in the will of her great uncle. It seems to me probable, or
at least possible, that this event marks her complete separation from
Shakespeare; she may very likely have left the Court and London on
ceasing to be a Maid of Honour.
Shakespeare is so filled with himself in this last play, so certain that
he is the most important person in the world, that this scene is more
charged with intimate self-revealing than any other in all his works.
And when Ferdinand comes upon the stage Shakespeare lends him, too, his
own peculiar qualities. His puppets no longer interest him; he is
careless of characterization. Ferdinand says:
"This music crept by me upon the waters
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air."
Music, it will be remembered, had precisely the same peculiar effect
upon Duke Orsino in "Twelfth Night." Ferdinand, too, is extraordinarily
"I am the best of them that speak this speech.
.... Myself am Naples."
Shakespeare's natural aristocratic pride as a Prince reinforced by his
understanding of his own real importance. Ferdinand then declares he
will be content with a prison if he can see Miranda in it:
Have I in such a prison."
Which is Hamlet's:
"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself
a king of infinite space."
The second act, with its foiled conspiracy, is wretchedly bad, and the
meeting of Caliban and Trinculo with Stephanie does not improve it much,
Shakespeare has little interest now in anything outside himself: age and
greatness are as self-centred as youth.
In the third act the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda is pretty, but
hardly more. Ferdinand is bloodless, thin, and Miranda swears "by her
modesty," as the jewel in her dower, which takes away a little from the
charming confession of girl-love:
"I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you."
The comic relief which follows is unspeakably dull; but the words of
Ariel, warning the King of Naples and the usurping Duke that the wrong
they have done Prospero is certain to be avenged unless blotted out by
"heart-sorrow and a clear life ensuing," are most characteristic and
In the fourth act Prospero preaches, as we have seen, self-restraint to
Ferdinand in words which, in their very extravagance, show how deeply he
regretted his own fault with his wife before marriage. I shall consider
the whole passage when treating of Shakespeare's marriage as an incident
in his life. Afterwards comes the masque, and the marvellous speech of
Prospero, which touches the highest height of poetry:
"These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inhabit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made of; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell,
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind."
I have given the verses to the very end, for I find the insistence on
his age and weakness (which are not in keeping with the character of a
magician), a confession of Shakespeare himself: the words "beating mind"
are extraordinarily characteristic, proving as they do that his thoughts
and emotions were too strong for his frail body.
In the fifth act Shakespeare-Prospero shows himself to us at his
noblest: he will forgive his enemies:
"Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further."
In "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" we saw how Shakespeare-Valentine
forgave his faithless friend as soon as he repented: here is the same
creed touched to nobler expression.
And then, with all his wishes satisfied, his heart's desire
accomplished, Prospero is ready to set out for Milan again and home. We
all expect some expression of joy from him, but this is what we get:
"And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave."
The despair is wholly unexpected and out of place, as was the story of
his weakness and infirmity, his "beating mind." It is evidently
Shakespeare's own confession. After writing "The Tempest" he intends to
retire to Stratford, where "every third thought shall be my grave."
I have purposely drawn special attention to Shakespeare's weakness and
despair at this time, because the sad, rhymed Epilogue which has to be
spoken by Prospero has been attributed to another hand by a good many
scholars. It is manifestly Shakespeare's, out of Shakespeare's very
heart indeed; though Mr. Israel Gollancz follows his leaders in saying
that the "Epilogue to the play is evidently by some other hand than
Shakespeare's": "evidently" is good. Here it is:
"Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want,
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults
As you from crimes would pardon'd be
Let your indulgence set me free."
From youth to age Shakespeare occupied himself with the deepest problems
of human existence; again and again we find him trying to pierce the
darkness that enshrouds life. Is there indeed nothing beyond the
grave--nothing? Is the noble fabric of human thought, achievement and
endeavour to fade into nothingness and pass away like the pageant of a
dream? He will not cheat himself with unfounded hopes, nor delude
himself into belief; he resigns himself with a sigh--it is the
undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. But
Shakespeare always believed in repentance and forgiveness, and now,
world-weary, old and weak, he turns to prayer, [Footnote: Hamlet, too,
after speaking with his father's ghost, cries: "I'll go pray."] prayer
Mercy itself and frees all faults."
Poor, broken Shakespeare! "My ending is despair": the sadness of it, and
the pity, lie deeper than tears.
What a man! to produce a masterpiece in spite of such weakness. What a
play is this "Tempest"! At length Shakespeare sees himself as he is, a
monarch without a country; but master of a very "potent art," a great
magician, with imagination as an attendant spirit, that can conjure up
shipwrecks, or enslave enemies, or create lovers at will; and all his
powers are used in gentle kindness. Ariel is a higher creation, more
spiritual and charming than any other poet has ever attempted; and
Caliban, the earth-born, half-beast, half-man--these are the poles of
Our long travail is almost at an end. We have watched Shakespeare
painting himself at various periods of his life, and at full length in
twenty dramas, as the gentle, sensuous poet-thinker. We have studied him
when given over to wild passion in the sonnets and elsewhere, and to
insane jealousy in "Othello"; we have seen him as Hamlet brooding on
revenge and self-murder, and in "Lear," and "Timon" raging on the verge
of madness, and in these ecstasies, when the soul is incapable of
feigning, we have discovered his true nature as it differed from the
ideal presentments which his vanity shaped and coloured. We have
corrected his personal estimate by that "story of faults conceal'd"
which Shakespeare himself referred to in sonnet 88. It only remains for
me now to give a brief account of his life and the incidents of it to
show that my reading of his character is borne out by the known facts,
and thus put the man in his proper setting, so to speak.
On the other hand, our knowledge of Shakespeare's character will help us
to reconstruct his life-story. What is known positively of his life
could be given in a couple of pages; but there are traditions of him,
tales about him, innumerable scraps of fact and fiction concerning him
which are more or less interesting and authentic; and now that we know
the man, we shall be able to accept or reject these reports with some
degree of confidence, and so arrive at a credible picture of his life's
journey, and the changes which Time wrought in him. In all I may say
about him I shall keep close to the facts as given in his works. When
tradition seems consonant with what Shakespeare has told us about
himself, or with what Ben Jonson said of him, I shall use it with
Shakespeare was a common name in Warwickshire; other Shakespeares
besides the poet's family were known there in the sixteenth century, and
at least one other William Shakespeare in the neighbourhood of
Stratford. The poet's father, John Shakespeare, was of farmer stock, and
seems to have had an adventurous spirit: he left Snitterfield, his
birthplace, as a young man, for the neighbouring town of Stratford,
where he set up in business for himself. Aubrey says he was a butcher;
he certainly dealt in meat, skins, and leather, as well as in corn,
wool, and malt--an adaptable, quick man, who turned his hand to
anything--a Jack-of-all-trades. He appears to have been successful at
first, for in 1556, five years after coming to Stratford, he purchased
two freehold tenements, one with a garden in Henley Street, and the
other in Greenhill Street, with an orchard. In 1557 he was elected
burgess, or town councillor, and shortly afterwards did the best stroke
of business in his life by marrying Mary Arden, whose father had been a
substantial farmer. Mary inherited the fee simple of Asbies, a house
with some fifty acres of land at Wilmcote, and an interest in property
at Snitterfield; the whole perhaps worth some L80 or L90, or, say, L600
of our money. His marriage turned John Shakespeare into a well-to-do
citizen; he filled various offices in the borough, and in 1568 became a
bailiff, the highest position in the corporation. During his year of
office, we are told, he entertained two companies of actors at
Mary Arden seems to have been her father's favourite child, and though
she could not sign her own name, must have possessed rare qualities; for
the poet, as we learn from "Coriolanus," held her in extraordinary
esteem and affection, and mourned her after her death as "the noblest
mother in the world."
William Shakespeare, the first son and third child of this couple, was
born on the 22nd or 23rd April, 1564, no one knows which day; the
Stratford parish registers prove that he was baptized on 26th April. And
if the date of his birth is not known, neither is the place of it; his
father owned two houses in Henley Street, and it is uncertain which he
was born in.
John Shakespeare had, fortunately, nothing to pay for the education of
his sons. They had free tuition at the Grammar School at Stratford. The
poet went to school when he was seven or eight years of age, and
received an ordinary education together with some grounding in Latin. He
probably spent most of his time at first making stories out of the
frescoes on the walls. There can be no doubt that he learned easily all
he was taught, and still less doubt that he was not taught much. He
mastered Lyly's "Latin Grammar," and was taken through some conversation
books like the "Sententiae Pueriles," and not much further, for he puts
Latin phrases in the mouth of the schoolmasters, Holofernes in "Love's
Labour's Lost," and Hugh Evans in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and all
these phrases are taken word for word either from Lyly's Grammar or from
the "Sententiae Pueriles." In "Titus Andronicus," too, one of Tamora's
sons, on reading a Latin couplet, says it is a verse of Horace, but he
"read it in the grammar," which was probably the author's case. Ben
Jonson's sneer was well-founded, Shakespeare had "little Latine and
lesse Greeke." His French, as shown in his "Henry V.," was anything but
good, and his Italian was probably still slighter.
It was lucky for Shakespeare that his father's increasing poverty
withdrew him from school early, and forced him into contact with life.
Aubrey says that "when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade [of
butcher]; but when he kill'd a calfe he would doe it in high style and
make a speech." I daresay young Will flourished about with a knife and
made romantic speeches; but I am pretty sure he never killed a calf.
Killing a calf is not the easiest part of a butcher's business; nor a
task which Shakespeare at any time would have selected. The tradition is
simply sufficient to prove that the town folk had already noticed the
eager, quick, spouting lad.
Of Shakespeare's life after he left school, say from thirteen to
eighteen, we know almost nothing. He probably did odd jobs for his
father from time to time; but his father's business seems to have run
rapidly from bad to worse; for in 1586 a creditor informed the local
Court that John Shakespeare had no goods on which distraint could be
levied, and on 6th September of the same year he was deprived of his
alderman's gown. During this period of steadily increasing poverty in
the house it was only to be expected that young Will Shakespeare would
The tradition as given by Rowe says that he fell "into low company, and
amongst them some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing engaged
him with them more than once in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy of
Charlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman,
as he then thought somewhat too severely, and in order to revenge that
ill-usage he made a ballad upon him."
Another story has it that Sir Thomas Lucy got a lawyer from Warwick to
prosecute the boys, and that Shakespeare stuck his satirical ballad to
the park gates at Charlecot. The ballad is said to have been lost, but
certain verses were preserved which fit the circumstances and suit
Shakespeare's character so perfectly that I for one am content to accept
them. I give the first and the last verses as most characteristic:
"A parliament member, a Justice of peace,
At home a poor scarecrow, in London an asse,
If Lowsie is lucy, as some volke miscalle it
Then Lucy is lowsie, whatever befalle it.
He thinks himself greate
Yet an asse in his state,
We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate.
If Lucy is lowsie, as some volke miscalle it
Sing lowsie Lucy whatever befalle it.
* * * * *
"If a juvenile frolick he cannot forgive,
We'll sing lowsie Lucy as long as we live,
And Lucy, the lowsie, a libel may calle it
Sing lowsie Lucy whatever befalle it.
He thinks himself greate
Yet an asse in his state,
We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate.
If Lucy is lowsie, as some volke miscalle it
Sing lowsie Lucy, Whatever befalle it."
The last verse, so out of keeping in its curious impartiality with the
scurrilous refrain, appears to me to carry its own signature. There can
be no doubt that the verses give us young Shakespeare's feelings in the
matter. It was probably reading ballads and tales of "Merrie Sherwood"
that first inclined him to deer-stealing; and we have already seen from
his "Richard II." and "Henry IV." and "Henry V." that he had been led
astray by low companions.
In his idle, high-spirited youth, Shakespeare did worse than break
bounds and kill deer; he was at a loose end and up to all sorts of
mischief. At eighteen he had already courted and won Anne Hathaway, a
farmer's daughter of the neighbouring village of Shottery. Anne was
nearly eight years older than he was. Her father had died a short time
before and left Anne, his eldest daughter, L6 13s. 4d.,
or, say, L50 of our money. The house at Shottery, now shown as Anne
Hathaway's cottage, once formed part of Richard Hathaway's farmhouse,
and there, and in the neighbouring lanes, the lovers did their courting.
The wooing on Shakespeare's side was nothing but pastime, though it led
His marriage is perhaps the first serious mistake that Shakespeare made,
and it certainly influenced his whole life. It is needful, therefore, to
understand it as accurately as may be, however we may judge it. A man's
life, like a great river, may be limpid-pure in the beginning, and when
near its source; as it grows and gains strength it is inevitably sullied
and stained with earth's soilure.
The ordinary apologists would have us believe that the marriage was
happy; they know that Shakespeare was not married in Stratford, and,
though a minor, his parents' consent to the marriage was not obtained;
but they persist in talking about his love for his wife, and his wife's
devoted affection for him. Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, the bell-wether of
the flock, has gone so far as to tell us how on the morning of the day
he died "his wife, who had smoothed the pillow beneath his head for the
last time, felt that her right hand was taken from her." Let us see if
there is any foundation for this sentimental balderdash. Here are some
of the facts.
In the Bishop of Worcester's register a licence was issued on 27th
November, 1582, authorizing the marriage of William Shakespeare with
Anne Whately, of Temple Grafton. On the very next day in the register of
the same Bishop there is a deed, wherein Fulk Sandells and John
Richardson, farmers of Shottery, bound themselves in the Bishop's court
under a surety of L40 to free the Bishop of all liability should a
lawful impediment--"by reason of any pre-contract or consanguinity"--be
subsequently disclosed to imperil the validity of the marriage, then in
contemplation, of William Shakespeare with Anne Hathaway.
Dryasdust, of course, argues that there is no connection whatever
between these two events. He is able to persuade himself easily that the
William Shakespeare who got a licence to marry Anne Whately, of Temple
Grafton, on 27th November, 1582, is not the same William Shakespeare who
is being forced to marry Anne Hathaway on the next day by two friends of
Anne Hathaway's father. Yet such a coincidence as two William
Shakespeares seeking to be married by special licence in the same court
at the same moment of time is too extraordinary to be admitted. Besides,
why should Sandells and Richardson bind themselves as sureties in L40 to
free the Bishop of liability by reason of any pre-contract if there were
no pre-contract? The two William Shakespeares are clearly one and the
same person. Sandells was a supervisor of the will of Richard Hathaway,
and was described in the will as "my trustie friende and neighbour." He
showed himself a trusty friend of the usual sort to his friend's
daughter, and when he heard that loose Will Shakespeare was attempting
to marry Anne Whately, he forthwith went to the same Bishop's court
which had granted the licence, pledged himself and his neighbour,
Richardson, as sureties that there was no pre-contract, and so induced
the Bishop, who no doubt then learned the unholy circumstances for the
first time, to grant a licence in order that the marriage with Anne
Hathaway could be celebrated, "with once asking of the bannes" and
without the consent of the father of the bridegroom, which was usually
required when the bridegroom was a minor.
Clearly Fulk Sandells was a masterful man; young Will Shakespeare was
forced to give up Anne Whately, poor lass, and marry Anne Hathaway, much
against his will. Like many another man, Shakespeare married at leisure,
and repented in hot haste. Six months later a daughter was born to him,
and was baptized in the name of Susanna at Stratford Parish Church on
the 26th of May, 1583. There was, therefore, an importunate reason for
the wedding, as Sandells, no doubt, made the Bishop understand.
The whole story, it seems to me, is in perfect consonance with
Shakespeare's impulsive, sensual nature; is, indeed, an excellent
illustration of it. Hot, impatient, idle Will got Anne Hathaway into
trouble, was forced to marry her, and at once came to regret. Let us see
how far these inferences from plain facts are borne out from his works.
The most important passages seem to have escaped critical scholarship. I
have already said that the earliest works of Shakespeare, and the
latest, are the most fruitful in details about his private life. In the
earliest works he was compelled to use his own experience, having no
observation of life to help him, and at the end of his life, having said
almost everything he had to say, he again went back to his early
experience for little vital facts to lend a colour to the fainter
pictures of age. In "The Winter's Tale," a shepherd finds the child
Perdita, who has been exposed; one would expect him to stumble on the
child by chance and express surprise; but this shepherd of Shakespeare
begins to talk in this way:
"I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that
youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.
Hark you now! Would any but these boiled brains of nineteen and
two-and-twenty hunt this weather?"
Now this passage has nothing to do with the play, nor with the
shepherd's occupation; nor is it at all characteristic of a shepherd
boy. Between ten and three-and-twenty a poor shepherd boy is likely to
be kept hard at work; he is not idle and at a loose end like young
Shakespeare, free to rob the ancientry, steal, fight, and get wenches
with child. That, in my opinion, is Shakespeare's own confession.
Of course, every one has noticed how Shakespeare again and again in his
plays declares that a woman should take in marriage an "elder than
herself," and that intimacy before marriage is productive of nothing but
"barren hate and discord." In "Twelfth Night" he says:
"Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart."
In "The Tempest" he writes again:
"If thou dost break her virgin knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister'd,
No sweet aspersions shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-ey'd disdain, and discord, shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both."
These admonitions are so far-fetched and so emphatic that they plainly
discover personal feeling. We have, besides, those quaint, angry
passages in the "Comedy of Errors," to which we have already drawn
attention, which show that the poet detested his wife.
The known facts, too, all corroborate this inference: let us consider
them a little. The first child was born within six months of the
marriage; twins followed in 1585; a little later Shakespeare left
Stratford not to return to it for eight or nine years, and when he did
return there was probably no further intimacy with his wife; at any
rate, there were no more children. Yet Shakespeare, one fancies, was
fond of children. When his son Hamnet died his grief showed itself in
his work--in "King John" and in "The Winter's Tale." He was full of
loving kindness to his daughters, too, in later life; it was his wife
alone for whom he had no affection, no forgiveness.
There are other facts which establish this conclusion. While Shakespeare
was in London he allowed his wife to suffer the extremes of poverty.
Sometime between 1585 and 1595 she appears to have borrowed forty
shillings from Thomas Whittington, who had formerly been her father's
shepherd. The money was still unpaid when Whittington died, in 1601, and
he directed his executor to recover the sum from the poet, and
distribute it among the poor of Stratford. Now Shakespeare was rich when
he returned to Stratford in 1595, and always generous. He paid off his
father's heavy debts; how came it that he did not pay this trifling debt
of his wife? The mere fact proves beyond doubt that Shakespeare disliked
her and would have nothing to do with her.
Even towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from increasing
weakness, which would have made most men sympathetic, even if it did not
induce them completely to relent, Shakespeare shows the same aversion to
his poor wife. In 1613, when on a short visit to London, he bought a
house in Blackfriars for L140; in the purchase he barred his wife's
dower, which proceeding seems even to Dryasdust "pretty conclusive proof
that he had the intention of excluding her from the enjoyment of his
possessions after his death."
In the first draft of his will Shakespeare did not mention his wife. The
apologists explain this by saying that, of course, he had already given
her all that she ought to have. But if he loved her he would have
mentioned her with affection, if only to console her in her widowhood.
Before the will was signed he inserted a bequest to her of his
"second-best bed," and the apologists have been at pains to explain that
the best bed was kept for guests, and that Shakespeare willed to his
wife the bed they both occupied. How inarticulate poor William
Shakespeare must have become! Could the master of language find no
better word than the contemptuous one? Had he said "our bed" it would
have been enough; "the second-best bed" admits of but one
interpretation. His daughters, who had lived with their mother, and who
had not been afflicted by her jealousy and scolding tongue, begged the
dying man to put in some mention of her, and he wrote in that
"second-best bed"--bitter to the last. If his own plain words and these
inferences, drawn from indisputable facts, are not sufficient, then let
us take one fact more, and consider its significance; one fact, so to
speak, from the grave.
When Shakespeare died he left some lines to be placed over his tomb.
Here they are:
"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To Digg the dust enclosed heare.
Blessed be ye man yt spares thes stones
And Curst be ye yt moves my bones."
Now, why did Shakespeare make this peculiar request? No one seems to
have seen any meaning in it. It looks to me as if Shakespeare wrote the
verses in order to prevent his wife being buried with him. He wanted to
be free of her in death as in life. At any rate, the fact is that she
was not buried with him, but apart from him; he had seen to that. His
grave was never opened, though his wife expressed a desire to be buried
with him. The man who needs further proofs would not be persuaded though
one came from the dead to convince him.
The marriage was an unfortunate one for many reasons, as an enforced
marriage is apt to be, even when it is not the marriage of a boy in his
teens to a woman some eight years his senior. Shakespeare takes trouble
to tell us in "The Comedy of Errors" that his wife was spitefully
jealous, and a bitter scold. She must have injured him, poisoned his
life with her jealous nagging, or Shakespeare would have forgiven her.
There is some excuse for him, if excuse be needed. At the time the
marriage must have seemed the wildest folly to him, seething as he was
with inordinate conceit. He was wise beyond his years, and yet he had
been forced to give hostages to fortune before he had any means of
livelihood, before he had even found a place in life. What a position
for a poet--penniless, saddled with a jealous wife and three children
before he was twenty-one. And this poet was proud, and vain, and in love
with all distinctions.
But why did Shakespeare nurse such persistent enmity all through his
life to jealous, scolding Anne Hathaway? Shakespeare had wronged her;
the keener his moral sense, the more certain he was to blame his partner
in the fault, for in no other way could he excuse himself.
It was overpowering sensuality and rashness which had led Shakespeare
into the noose, and now there was nothing for it but to cut the rope. He
had either to be true to his higher nature or to the conventional view
of his duty; he was true to himself and fled to London, and the world is
the richer for his decision. The only excuse he ever made is to be found
in the sonnet-line:
"Love is too young to know what conscience is."
For my part I do not see that any excuse is needed: if Shakespeare had
married Anne Whately he might never have gone to London or written a
play. Shakespeare's hatred of his wife and his regret for having married
her were alike foolish. Our brains are seldom the wisest part of us. It
was well that he made love to Anne Hathaway; well, too, that he was
forced to marry her; well, finally, that he should desert her. I am
sorry he treated her badly and left her unsupplied with money; that was
needlessly cruel; but it is just the kindliest men who have these
extraordinary lapses; Shakespeare's loathing for his wife was
measureless, was a part of his own self-esteem, and his self-esteem was
founded on snobbish non-essentials for many years, if not, indeed,
throughout his life.
There is a tradition preserved by Rowe that before going to London young
Shakespeare taught school in the country; it may be; but he did not
teach for long, we can be sure, and what he had to teach there were few
scholars in the English country then or now capable of learning. Another
tradition asserts that he obtained employment as a lawyer's clerk,
probably because of the frequent use of legal phrases in his plays. But
these apologists all forget that they are speaking of men like
themselves, and of times like ours. Politics is the main theme of talk
in our day; but in the time of Elizabeth it was rather dangerous to show
one's wisdom by criticizing the government: law was then the chief
staple of conversation: every educated man was therefore familiar with
law and its phraseology, as men are familiar in our day with the jargon
When did Shakespeare fly to London? Some say when he was twenty-one, as
soon as his wife presented him with twins, in 1585. Others say as soon
as Sir Thomas Lucy's persecution became intolerable. Both causes no
doubt worked together, and yet another cause, given in "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona," was the real causa causans. Shakespeare was
naturally ambitious; eager to measure himself with the best and try his
powers. London was the arena where all great prizes were to be won:
Shakespeare strained towards the Court like a greyhound in leash. But
when did he go? Again in doubt I take the shepherd's words in "The
Winter's Tale" as a guide. Most men would have said from fourteen to
twenty was the dangerous age for a youth; but Shakespeare had perhaps a
personal reason for the peculiar "ten to twenty-three." He was, no
doubt, astoundingly precocious, and probably even at ten he had learned
everything of value that the grammar school had to teach, and his
thoughts had begun to play truant. Twenty-three, too, is a significant
date in his life; in 1587, when he was twenty-three, two companies of
actors, under the nominal patronage of the Queen and Lord Leicester,
returned to London from a provincial tour, during which they visited
Stratford. In Lord Leicester's company were Burbage and Heminge, with
whom we know that Shakespeare was closely connected in later life. It
seems to me probable that he returned with this company to London, and
arrived in London, as he tells us in "The Comedy of Errors," "stiff and
weary with long travel," and at once went out to view the town and
"peruse the traders."
There is a tradition that when he came to London in 1587 he held horses
outside the doors of the theatre. This story was first put about by the
compiler of "The Lives of the Poets," in 1753. According to the author
the story was related by D'Avenant to Betterton; but Rowe, to whom
Betterton must have told it, does not transmit it. Rowe was perhaps
right to forget it or leave it out; though the story is not in itself
incredible. Such work must have been infinitely distasteful to
Shakespeare, but necessity is a hard master, and Greene, who talks of
him later as "Shake-scene," also speaks in the same connection of these
"grooms." The curious amplified version of the story that Shakespeare
organized a service of boys to hold the horses is hardly to be believed.
The great Doctor was anything but a poet, or a good judge of the poetic
The Shakespeares of this world are not apt to take up menial employs,
and this one had already shown that he preferred idle musings and
parasitic dependence to uncongenial labour. Whoever reads the second
scene of the second act of "The Comedy of Errors," will see that
Shakespeare, even at the beginning, had an uncommonly good opinion of
himself. He plays gentleman from the first, and despises trade; he snubs
his servant and will not brook familiarity from him. In "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona," he tells us that he left the country and came to
London seeking "honour," intending, no doubt, to make a name for himself
by his writings. He had probably "Venus and Adonis" in his pocket when
he first reached London. This would inspire a poet with the
self-confidence which a well-filled purse lends to an ordinary man.
I am inclined to accept Rowe's statement that Shakespeare was received
into an actor-company at first in a very mean rank. The parish clerk of
Stratford at the end of the seventeenth century used to tell the
visitors that Shakespeare entered the playhouse as a servitor; but,
however he entered it, it is pretty certain he was not long in a
What manner of man was William Shakespeare when he first fronted life in
London somewhere about 1587? Aubrey tells us that he was "a handsome,
well-shap't man, very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant
smooth witt." The bust of him in Stratford Church was coloured; it gave
him light hazel eyes, and auburn hair and beard. Rowe says of him that
"besides the advantages of his witt, he was in himself a good-natured
man, of too great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable
I picture him to myself very like Swinburne--of middle height or below
it, inclined to be stout; the face well-featured, with forehead domed to
reverence and quick, pointed chin; a face lighted with hazel-clear vivid
eyes and charming with sensuous-full mobile lips that curve easily to
kisses or gay ironic laughter; an exceedingly sensitive, eager speaking
face that mirrors every fleeting change of emotion....
I can see him talking, talking with extreme fluency in a high tenor
voice, the reddish hair flung back from the high forehead, the eyes now
dancing, now aflame, every feature quick with the "beating mind."
And such talk--the groundwork of it, so to speak, very
intimate-careless; but gemmed with thoughts, diamonded with wit,
rhythmic with feeling: don't we know how it ran--"A hundred and fifty
tattered prodigals.... No eye hath seen such scarecrows, ... discarded,
unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters,
and ostlers trade-fallen: the cankers of a calm world and a long peace."
And after the thought the humour again--"food for powder, food for
Now let us consider some of his other qualities. In 1592 he published
his "Venus and Adonis," which he had no doubt written in 1587 or even
earlier, for he called it "the first heir of my invention" when he
dedicated it to Lord Southampton. This work is to me extremely
significant. It is all concerned with the wooing of young Adonis by
Venus, an older woman. Now, goddesses have no age, nor do women, as a
rule, woo in this sensual fashion. The peculiarities point to personal
experience. "I, too," Shakespeare tells us practically, "was wooed by an
older woman against my will." He seems to have wished the world to
accept this version of his untimely marriage. Young Shakespeare in
London was probably a little ashamed of being married to some one whom
he could hardly introduce or avow. The apologists who declare that he
made money very early in his career give us no explanation of the fact
that he never brought his wife or children to London. Wherever we touch
Shakespeare's intimate life, we find proof upon proof that he detested
his wife and was glad to live without her.
Looked at in this light "Venus and Adonis" is not a very noble thing to
have written; but I am dealing with a young poet's nature, and the
majority of young poets would like to forget their Anne Hathaway if they
could; or, to excuse themselves, would put the blame of an ill-sorted
union upon the partner to it.
There is a certain weakness, however, shown in the whole story of his
marriage; a weakness of character, as well as a weakness of
morale, which it is impossible to ignore; and there were other
weaknesses in Shakespeare, especially a weakness of body which must
necessarily have had its correlative delicacies of mind.
I have pointed out in the first part of this book that sleeplessness was
a characteristic of Shakespeare, even in youth; he attributes it to
Henry IV. in old age, and to Henry V., a youth at the time, who probably
never knew what a sleepless night meant. Shakespeare's alter ego,
Valentine, in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," suffers from it, and so do
Macbeth and Hamlet, and a dozen others of his chief characters, in
particular his impersonations--all of which shows, I think, that from
the beginning the mind of Shakespeare was too strong for his body. As we
should say to-day, he was too emotional, and lived on his nerves. I
always think of him as a ship over-engined; when the driving-power is
working at full speed it shakes the ship to pieces.
One other weakness is marked in him, and that is that he could not
drink, could not carry his liquor like a man--to use our accepted
phrase. Hamlet thought drinking a custom more honoured in the breach
than in the observance; Cassius, Shakespeare's incarnation in "Othello,"
confessed that he had "poor unhappy brains for drinking": tradition
informs us that Shakespeare himself died of a "feavour" from
drinking--all of which confirms my opinion that Shakespeare was delicate
rather than robust. He was, also, extraordinarily fastidious: in drama
after drama he rails against the "greasy" caps and "stinking" breath of
the common people. This overstrained disgust suggests to me a certain
delicacy of constitution.
But there is still another indication of bodily weakness which in itself
would be convincing to those accustomed to read closely; but which would
carry little or no weight to the careless. In sonnet 129 Shakespeare
tells us of lust and its effects, and the confession seems to me purely
personal. Here are four lines of it:
"Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad."
Now, this is not the ordinary man's experience of passion and its
effects. "Past reason hunted," such an one might say, but he would
certainly not go on "No sooner had, Past reason hated." He is not moved
to hate by enjoyment, but to tenderness; it is your weakling who is
physically exhausted by enjoyment who is moved to hatred. This sonnet
was written by Shakespeare in the prime of manhood at thirty-four or
thirty-five at latest.
Shakespeare was probably healthy as a young man, but intensely sensitive
and highly strung; too finely constituted ever to have been strong. One
notices that he takes no pleasure in fighting; his heroes are, of
course, all "valiant," but he shows no loving interest in the game of
fighting as a game. In fact, we have already seen that he found no
wonderful phrase for any of the manly virtues; he was a neuropath and a
lover, and not a fighter, even in youth, or Fulk Sandells might have
rued his interference.
The dominating facts to be kept ever in mind about Shakespeare are that
he was delicate in body, and over-excitable; yielding and irresolute in
character; with too great sweetness of manners and inordinately given to
the pleasures of love.
How would such a man fare in the world of London in 1587? It was a wild
and wilful age; eager English spirits were beginning to take a part in
the opening up of the new world; the old, limiting horizons were gone;
men dared to think for themselves and act boldly; ten years before Drake
had sailed round the world--the adventurer was the characteristic
product of the time. In ordinary company a word led to a blow, and the
fight was often brought to a fatal conclusion with dagger or sword or
both. In those rough days actors were almost outlaws; Ben Jonson is
known to have killed two or three men; Marlowe died in a tavern brawl.
Courage has always been highly esteemed in England, like gentility and a
university training. Shakespeare possessed none of these passports to
public favour. He could not shoulder his way through the throng. The
wild adventurous life of the time was not to his liking, even in early
manhood; from the beginning he preferred "the life removed" and his
books; all given over to the "bettering of his mind" he could only have
been appreciated at any time by the finer spirits.
Entering the theatre as a servitor he no doubt made such acquaintances
as offered themselves, and spent a good deal of his leisure perforce
with second-rate actors and writers in common taverns and studied his
Bardolph and Pistol, and especially his Falstaff at first hand. Perhaps
Marlowe was one of his ciceroni in rough company. Shakespeare had
almost certainly met Marlowe very early in his career, for he worked
with him in the "Third Part of Henry VI.," and his "Richard III." is a
conscious imitation of Marlowe, and Marlowe was dissipated enough and
wild enough to have shown him the wildest side of life in London in the
'80's. It was the very best thing that could have happened to delicate
Shakespeare, to come poor and unknown to London, and be soused in common
rowdy life like this against his will by sheer necessity; for if left to
his own devices he would probably have grown up a bookish poet--a second
Coleridge. Fate takes care of her favourites.
It was all in his favour that he should have been forced at first to win
his spurs as an actor. He must have been too intelligent, one would
think, ever to have brought it far as a mummer; he looked upon the
half-art of acting with disdain and disgust, as he tells us in the
sonnets, and if in Hamlet he condescends to give advice to actors, it is
to admonish them not to outrage the decencies of nature by tearing a
passion to tatters. He had at hand a surer ladder to fame than the
mummer's art. As soon as he felt his feet in London he set to work
adapting plays, and writing plays, while reading his own poetry to all
and sundry who would listen, and I have no doubt that patrons of the
stage, who were also men of rank, were willing to listen to Shakespeare
from the beginning. He was of those who require no introductions.
In 1592, four or five years after his arrival in London, he had already
come to the front as a dramatist, or at least as an adapter of plays,
for Robert Greene, a scholar and playwright, attacked him in his
"Groatsworth of Wit" in this fashion:
"There is an upstart Crow, beautified in our feathers
that, with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes
he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as
the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes fac
totum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakescene in a
country. Oh, that I might intreat your rare wits to be
employed in more profitable courses, and let these apes
imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint
them with your admired inventions."
It is plain from this weird appeal that Shakespeare had already made his
There are further proofs of his rapid success. One of Chettle's
references to Shakespeare (I take Chettle to be the original of
Falstaff) throws light upon the poet's position in London in these early
days. Shortly after Greene had insulted Shakespeare as "Shake-scene"
Chettle apologized for the insult in these terms:
"I am as sorry," Chettle wrote, "as if the original
fault had beene my fault, because myselfe have seen his
(i.e., Shakespeare's) demeanour no less civill than he (is)
exelent in the qualitie he professes. Besides, divers of
worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which
argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that
aprooves his art."
In 1592, then, Shakespeare was most "civill in demeanour," and had won
golden opinions from people of importance.
Actors and poets of that time could not help knowing a good many of the
young nobles who came to the theatre and sat round the stage listening
to the performances. And Shakespeare, with his aristocratic sympathies
and charming sweetness of nature, must have made friends with the
greatest ease. Chettle's apology proves that early in his career he had
the art or luck to win distinguished patrons who spoke well of him.
While still new to town he came to know Lord Southampton, to whom he
dedicated "Venus and Adonis"; the fulsome dedication of "Lucrece" to the
same nobleman two years later shows that deference had rapidly ripened
into affectionate devotion; no wonder Rowe noticed the "too great
sweetness in his manners." Thinking of his intimacy with Southampton on
the one hand and Bardolph on the other, one is constrained to say of
Shakespeare what Apemantus says of Timon:
"The middle of humanity thou never knewest,
But the extremity of both ends."
In the extremes characters show themselves more clearly than they do in
the middle classes; at both ends of society speech and deed are
unrestrained. Falstaff and Bardolph and the rest were free of convention
by being below it, just as Bassanio and Mercutio were free because they
were above it, and made the rules. The young lord did what he pleased,
and spoke his mind as plainly as the footpad. Life at both ends was the
very school for quick, sympathetic Shakespeare. But even in early
manhood, as soon as he came to himself and found his work, one other
quality is as plain in Shakespeare as even his humour--high impartial
intellect with sincere ethical judgement. He judges even Falstaff
severely, to the point of harshness, indeed; as he judged himself later
in Enobarbus. This high critical faculty pervades all his work. But it
must not be thought that his conduct was as scrupulous as his
principles, or his will as sovereign as his intelligence. That he was a
loose-liver while in London is well attested. Contemporary anecdotes
generally hit off a man's peculiarities, and the only anecdote of
Shakespeare that is known to have been told about him in his lifetime
illustrates this master trait of his character. Burbage, we are told,
when playing Richard III., arranged with a lady in the audience to visit
her after the performance. Shakespeare overheard the rendezvous,
anticipated his fellow's visit, and met Burbage on his arrival with the
jibe that "William the Conqueror came before Richard III." The lightness
is no doubt as characteristic of Shakespeare as the impudent humour.
There is another fact in Shakespeare's life which throws almost as much
light on his character as his marriage. He seems to have come to riches
very early and very easily. As we have seen, he was never able to paint
a miser, which confirms Jonson's testimony that he was "of an open and
free nature." In 1597 he went down to Stratford and bought New Place,
then in ruinous condition, but the chief house in the town, for L60; he
spent at least as much more between 1597 and 1599 in rebuilding the
house and stocking the barns with grain. In 1602 we find that he
purchased from William and John Combe, of Stratford, a hundred and seven
acres of arable land near the town, for which he paid L320; in 1605,
too, he bought for L440 a moiety of the tithes of Stratford for an
unexpired term of thirty-one years, which investment seems to have
brought him in little except a wearisome lawsuit.
Now, how did the poet obtain this thousand pounds or so? English
apologists naturally assume that he was a "good business man"; with
delicious unconscious irony they one and all picture the man who hated
tradesmen as himself a sort of thrifty tradesman-soul--a master of
practical life who looked after the pennies from the beginning. These
commentators all treat Shakespeare as the Hebrews treated God; they make
him in their own likeness. In Shakespeare's case this practice leads to
absurdity. Let us take the strongest advocate of the accepted view.
Dryasdust is at pains to prove that Shakespeare's emoluments, even as an
actor in the '90's, were not likely to have fallen below a hundred a
year; but even Dryasdust admits that his large earnings came after 1599,
from his shares in the Globe Theatre, and is inclined "to accept the
tradition that Shakespeare received from the Earl of Southampton a large
gift of money." As Southampton came of age in 1595, he may well out of
his riches have helped the man who had dedicated his poems to him with
servile adulation. Moreover, the statement is put forward by Rowe, who
is certainly more trustworthy than the general run of gossip-mongers,
and his account of the matter proves that he did not accept the story
with eager credulity, but as one compelled by authority. Here is what he
"There is one story so singular in magnificence of this patron of
Shakspeare that if I had not been assured that the story was handed down
by Sir Wm. D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his
affairs, I should not have ventured to insert that my lord Southampton,
at one time, gave him a thousand pounds to enable him to go through with
a purchase to which he heard he had a mind. A bounty very great, and
very rare at any time, almost equal to that profuse generosity the
present age has shown to French dancers and Italian Eunuchs."
It seems to me a great deal more likely that this munificent gift of
Southampton was the source of Shakespeare's wealth than that he added
coin to coin in saving, careful fashion. It may be said at once that all
the evidence we have is in favour of Shakespeare's extravagance, and
against his thrift. As we have seen, when studying "The Merchant of
Venice," the presumption is that he looked upon saving with contempt, and
was himself freehanded to a fault. The Rev. John Ward, who was Vicar
of Stratford from 1648 to 1679, tells us "that he spent at the rate of a
thousand a year, as I have heard."
It is impossible to deny that Shakespeare got rid of a great deal of
money even after his retirement to Stratford; and men accustomed to save
are not likely to become prodigal in old age.
On the 10th March, 1613, Shakespeare bought a house in Blackfriars for
L140; the next day he executed another deed, now in the British Museum,
which stipulated that L60 of the purchase-money was to remain on
mortgage until the following Michaelmas; the money was unpaid at
Shakespeare's death, which seems to me to argue a certain carelessness,
to say the least of it.
Dryasdust makes out that Shakespeare, in the years from 1600 to 1612,
was earning about six hundred a year in the money of the period, or
nearly five thousand a year of our money, and yet he was unable or
unwilling to pay off a paltry L60.
After passing the last five years of his life in village Stratford,
where he could not possibly have found many opportunities of
extravagance, he was only able to leave a little more than one year's
income. He willed New Place to his elder daughter, Susanna Hall,
together with the land, barns, and gardens at and near Stratford (except
the tenement in Chapel Lane), and the house in Blackfriars, London, all
together equal, at the most, to five or six hundred pounds; and to his
younger daughter, Judith, he bequeathed the tenement in Chapel Lane,
L150 in money, and another L150 to be paid if she was alive three years
after the date of the will. Nine hundred pounds, or so, of the money of
the period, would cover all he possessed at death. When we consider
these things, it becomes plain, I think, that Shakespeare was
extravagant to lavishness even in cautious age. While in London he no
doubt earned and was given large sums of money; but he was free-handed
and careless, and died far poorer than one would have expected from an
ordinarily thrifty man. The loose-liver is usually a spendthrift.
There are worse faults to be laid to his account than lechery and
extravagance. Every one who has read his works with any care must admit
that Shakespeare was a snob of the purest English water. Aristocratic
tastes were natural to him; inherent, indeed, in the delicate
sensitiveness of his beauty-loving temperament; but he desired the
outward and visible signs of gentility as much as any podgy millionaire
of our time, and stooped as low to get them as man could stoop. In 1596,
his young son, Hamnet, died at Stratford, and was buried on 11th August
in the parish church. This event called Shakespeare back to his village,
and while he was there he most probably paid his father's debts, and
certainly tried to acquire for himself and his successors the position
of gentlefolk. He induced his father to make application to the College
of Heralds for a coat of arms, on the ground not only that his father
was a man of substance, but that he had also married into a "worshipful"
family. The draft grant of arms was not executed at the time. It may
have been that the father's pecuniary position became known to the
College, or perhaps the profession of the son created difficulties;
but in any case nothing was done for some time. In 1597, however, the
Earl of Essex became Earl Marshal and Chief of the Heralds' College, and
the scholar and antiquary, William Camden, joined the College as
Clarenceux King of Arms. Shakespeare must have been known to the Earl of
Essex, who was an intimate friend of the Earl of Southampton; he was
indeed almost certainly a friend and admirer of Essex. The Shakespeares'
second application to be admitted to the status of gentlefolk took a new
form. They asserted roundly that the coat as set out in the draft of
1596 had been assigned to John Shakespeare while he was bailiff, and the
heralds were asked to give him a "recognition" of it. At the same time
John Shakespeare asked for permission to quarter on his "ancient coat of
arms" that of the Ardens of Wilmscote, his wife's family. But this was
going too far, even for a friend of Essex. To grant such a request might
have got the College into trouble with the influential Warwickshire
family of Arden, and so it was refused; but the grant was "recognized,"
and Shakespeare's peculiar ambition was satisfied.
Every single incident in his life bears out what we have learned from
his works. In all his writings he praises lords and gentlemen, and runs
down the citizens and common people, and in his life he spent some
years, a good deal of trouble, and many impudent lies in getting for his
father a grant of arms and recognition as a gentleman--a very pitiful
ambition, but peculiarly English. Shakespeare, one fancies, was a
gentleman by nature, and a good deal more.
But his snobbishness had other worse results. Partly because of it he
never got to know the middle classes in England. True, even in his time
they were excessively Puritanical, which quality hedged them off, so to
speak, from the playwright-poet. With his usual gentleness or timidity,
Shakespeare never tells us directly what he thought of the Puritans, but
his half-averted, contemptuous glance at them in passing, is very
significant. Angelo, the would-be Puritan ruler, was a "false seemer,"
Malvolio was a "chough." The peculiar virtues of the English middle
class, its courage and sheepishness; its good conduct and respect for
duties; its religious sense and cocksure narrow-mindedness, held no
attraction for Shakespeare, and, armoured in snobbishness, he utterly
missed what a knowledge of the middle classes might have given him.
Let us take one instance of his loss. Though he lived in an age of
fanaticism, he never drew a fanatic or reformer, never conceived a man
as swimming against the stream of his time. He had but a vague
conception of the few spirits in each age who lead humanity to new and
higher ideals; he could not understand a Christ or a Mahomet, and it
seems as if he took but small interest in Jeanne d'Arc, the noblest
being that came within the ken of his art. For even if we admit that he
did not write the first part of "Henry VI.," it is certain that it
passed through his hands, and that in his youth, at any rate, he saw
nothing to correct in that vile and stupid libel on the greatest of
women. Even the English fanatic escaped his intelligence; his Jack Cade,
as I have already noticed, is a wretched caricature; no Cade moves his
fellows save by appealing to the best in them, to their sense of
justice, or what they take for justice. The Cade who will wheedle men
for his own gross ambitions may make a few dupes, but not thousands of
devoted followers. These elementary truths Shakespeare never understood.
Yet how much greater he would have been had he understood them; had he
studied even one Puritan lovingly and depicted him sympathetically. For
the fanatic is one of the hinges which swing the door of the modern
world. Shakespeare's "universal sympathy"--to quote Coleridge--did not
include the plainly-clad tub-thumper who dared to accuse him to his face
of serving the Babylonish Whore. Shakespeare sneered at the Puritan
instead of studying him; with the result that he belongs rather to the
Renaissance than to the modern world, in spite even of his Hamlet. The
best of a Wordsworth or a Turgenief is outside him; he would never have
understood a Marianna or a Bazarof, and the noble faith of the sonnet to
"Toussaint l'Ouverture" was quite beyond him. He could never have
"Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee, air, earth and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind."
It is time to speak of him frankly; he was gentle, and witty; gay, and
sweet-mannered, very studious, too, and fair of mind; but at the same
time he was weak in body and irresolute, hasty and wordy, and took
habitually the easiest way out of difficulties; he was ill-endowed in
the virile virtues and virile vices. When he showed arrogance it was
always of intellect and not of character; he was a parasite by nature.
But none of these faults would have brought him to ruin; he was snared
again in full manhood by his master-quality, his overpowering
sensuality, and thrown in the mire.
Shakespeare's life seems to fall sharply into two halves. Till he met
Mistress Fitton, about 1597, he must have been happy and well content, I
think, in spite of his deep underlying melancholy. According to my
reckoning he had been in London about ten years, and no man has ever
done so much in the time and been so successful even as the world counts
success. He had not only written the early poems and the early plays,
but in the last three or four years half-a-dozen masterpieces: "A
Midsummer's Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet," "Richard II.," "King
John," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Two Parts of Henry IV." At
thirty-three he was already the greatest poet and dramatist of whom Time
holds any record.
Southampton's bounty had given him ease, and allowed him to discharge
his father's debts, and place his dearly loved mother in a position of
comfort in the best house in Stratford.
He had troops of friends, we may be sure, for there was no gentler,
gayer, kindlier creature in all London, and he set store by friendship.
Ten years before he had neither money, place, nor position; now he had
all these, and was known even at Court. The Queen had been kind to him.
He ended the epilogue to the "Second Part of Henry IV.," which he had
just finished, by kneeling "to pray for the Queen." Essex or Southampton
had no doubt brought his work to Elizabeth's notice: she had approved
his "Falstaff" and encouraged him to continue. Of all his successes,
this royal recognition was surely the one which pleased him most. He was
at the topmost height of happy hours when he met the woman who was to
change the world for him.
In the lives of great men the typical tragedies are likely to repeat
themselves. Socrates was condemned to drain many a poisoned cup before
he was given the bowl of hemlock: Shakespeare had come to grief with
many women before he fell with Mary Fitton. It was his ungovernable
sensuality which drove him in youth to his untimely and unhappy
marriage; it was his ungovernable sensuality, too, which in his maturity
led him to worship Mary Fitton, and threw him into those twelve years of
bondage to earthy, coarse service which he regretted so bitterly when
the passion-fever had burned itself out.
One can easily guess how he came to know the self-willed and wild-living
maid-of-honour. Like many of the courtiers, Mistress Fitton affected the
society of the players. Kemp, the clown of his company, knew her, and
dedicated a book to her rather familiarly. I have always thought that
Shakespeare resented Kemp's intimacy with Mistress Fitton, for when
Hamlet advises the players to prevent the clown from gagging, he adds,
with a snarl of personal spite:
"a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."
Mary Fitton's position, her proud, dark beauty, her daring of speech and
deed took Shakespeare by storm. She was his complement in every failing;
her strength matched his weakness; her resolution his hesitation, her
boldness his timidity; besides, she was of rank and place, and out of
pure snobbery he felt himself her inferior. He forgot that humble
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