Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Shakespeare - Biographical Facts and Traditions

( Originally Published 1918 )

IN the time of Shakespeare, the fashion of writing lives of men of letters had not yet arisen. The art of biography could hardly be said to be even in its infancy, for the most notable early examples, such as the lives of Wolsey by Cavendish and of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law in the sixteenth century, and Walton's handful in the seventeenth, are far from what the present age regards as scientific biography. The preservation of official records makes it possible for the modern scholar to reconstruct with considerable fullness the careers of public men ; but in the case of Shakespeare, as of others of his profession, we must needs he content with a few scrappy documents, supplemented by oral traditions of varying degrees of authenticity. About Shakespeare himself it must be allowed that we have been able to learn more than about most of his fellow dramatists and actors.

In a matter which has been the subject of so much controversy, it may be an aid to clearness if the facts established by contemporary documents be first related, and the less trustworthy reports added later. The first indubitable item is trivial and unsavory enough. In April, 1552, a certain John Shakespeare, residing in Henley Street, Stratford-on-Avon, in the county of Warwick, was fined twelvepence for failing to remove a heap of filth from before his door. This John, who shared his surname with a multitude of other Shakespeares in the England and especially in the Warwick-shire of his time, appears, without reasonable doubt, to have been the father of the poet. He is described in later tradition as a glover and as a butcher ; the truth seems to be that he did a miscellaneous business in farm products. For twenty years or more after this first record he prospered, rising through various petty municipal offices to the position of bailiff, or mayor, of the town in 1568. His fortunes must have been notably improved by his marriage, for the Mary Arden whom he wedded in 1557 was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, Robert Arden, who bequeathed her £6 13s. 4d. in money and a house with fifty acres of land.

To John and Mary Shakespeare was born a son William, whose baptism was registered in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford on April 26, 1564. He was their eldest son, two daughters previously born being already dead. Their other children were Gilbert, Joan, Anna, Richard, and Edmund. The precise day of William's birth is unknown. The monument over his grave states that at his death on April 23, 1616, he was "AEtatis 53," which would seem to indicate that he must have been born at least as early as April 22 ; and, since in those days baptism usually took place within a very few days of birth, there is no reason for pushing the date farther back.

Of the education of the poet we have no record. Stratford had a free grammar school, to which such a boy as the bailiff's son would be sure to be sent ; and the inference that William Shakespeare was a pupil there and studied the usual Latin authors is entirely reasonable. About 1577 his father began to get into financial difficulties, and it is reported that about this time the boy was withdrawn from school to help in his father's business. We know nothing certainly, however, until we learn from the registry of the Bishop of Worcester that on November 28, 1582, two husband-men of Stratford gave bonds "to defend and save harm-less" the bishop and his officers for licensing the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. Of the actual marriage there is no record. Anne is probably to be identified with Agnes or Anne, the daughter of Richard Hathaway of the neighboring hamlet of Shottery, who had died in the previous July, and had owned the house of which a part still survives and is shown to visitors as "Anne Hathaway's cottage." The date on Anne's tombstone indicates that she was eight years older than the poet.

A comparison of the bond just mentioned with other documents of the kind indicates it to be exceptional in the absence of any mention of consent by the bridegroom's parents, a circumstance rendered still more remarkable by the fact that he was a minor. The bondsmen were from Shottery, and this, along with the considerations already advanced, has naturally led to the inference that the marriage was hurried by the bride's friends, and to the finding of a motive for their haste in the birth within six months of "Susanna, daughter to William Shakespere," who was baptized on May 26, 1583.

The record of the baptism of Shakespeare's only other children, the twins Hamnet and Judith, in February, 1585, practically exhausts the documentary evidence concerning the poet in Stratford until 1596. It is conjectured, but not known, that about 1586 he found his way to London and soon became connected with the theater, according to one tradition, as call-boy, to another, as holder of the horses of theatergoers. But by 1592 we are assured that he had entered the ranks of the playwrights, and had achieved enough success to rouse the jealous resentment of a rival. Robert Greene, who died on the third of September in that year, left unpublished a pamphlet, Greenes Groats-worth of Witte: bought with a Million of Repentaunce, in which he warned three of his fellows against certain plagiarists, "those puppits, I meane, that speake from our mouths, those anticks garnisht in our colours." "Yes, trust them not," he goes on; "for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you ; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrie. O that I might intreate your rare wits to be imployed in more profitable courses, and let those apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions ! I know the best husband of you all will never prove an usurer, and the kindest of them all wil never proove a kinde nurse ; yet, whilst you may, seeke you better maisters, for it is pittie men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude groomes." The phrase about the "tyger's heart" is an obvious parody on the line,

Oh Tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide !

which occurs both in The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and in the variant of that play which is included in the First Folio as the third part of Henry VI. "The only Shake-scene" has naturally been taken as an allusion to Shakespeare's name ; and it is scarcely possible to doubt the reference to him throughout the passage. This being so, we may infer that by this date Shakespeare had written, with whatever else, his share in the three parts of Henry VI, and was successful enough to seem formidable to the dying Greene. It is noteworthy, too, that thus early we have allusion to his double profession : as an actor in the words "player's hide" and "Shake-scene," and as an author in the charge of plagiarism. That the reference in "beautified with our feathers" is to literary plagiarism is confirmed by the following lines from Greene's Funeralls, by R. B., 1594, which seem to have been suggested by Greene's phrase :

Greene is the ground of everie painters die;
Greene gave the ground to all that wrote upon him.
Nay, more, the men that so eclipst his fame,
Purloynde his plumes: can they deny the same?

Somewhat less certain is the allusion in a document closely connected with the foregoing. Greenes Groatsworth had been prepared for the press by his friend Henry Chettle, and in the address "To the Gentlemen Readers" prefixed to his Kind-Harts Dreame (registered December 8, 1592), Chettle regrets that he has not struck out from Greene's book the passages that have been " offensively by one or two of them taken." " With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. The other, whome at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the heate of living writers, and might have usde my owne discretion, — especially in such a case, the Author beeing dead, — that I did not, I am as sory, as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because myselfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civill, than he 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." This characterization so well fits in with the tone of later contemporary allusions to Shakespeare that it is regrettable that. Chettle did not make its reference to him beyond a doubt.

Within a few months after the disturbance caused by Greene's charges, Shakespeare appeared in the field of authorship in quite unambiguous fashion. On April 18, 1593, Richard Field, himself a Stratford man, entered at Stationers' Hall a book entitled Venus and Adonis,.. The dedication, which is to the Earl of Southampton, is signed by "William Shakespeare," and the state of the text confirms the inference that the poet himself oversaw the publication. The terms of the dedication, read in the light of contemporary examples of this kind of writing, do not imply any close relation between poet and patron ; and the phrase "the first heyre of my invention," applied to the poem, need not be taken as placing its composition earlier than any of the plays, since writing for the stage was then scarcely regarded as practising the art of letters. Lucrece was registered May 9, 1594, and appeared likewise without a name on the title-page, but with Shakespeare's full signature attached to a dedication, somewhat more warmly personal than before, to the same nobleman. The frequency of complimentary references to these poems, and the number of editions issued during the poet's lifetime (seven of Venus, and five of Lucrece), indicate that it was through them that he first obtained literary distinction.

Meanwhile he was gaining a footing as an actor. The accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber for March 15, 1594-5, bear record of Shakespeare's having been summoned, along with Kempe and Burbage, as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Company, to present two comedies before the Queen at Greenwich Palace the Christmas season of 1594. This is the earliest mention of the poet as sharing with his company a kind of recognition as honorable as it was profitable.

The records now take us back to his family. On August 11, 1596, his only son Hamnet was buried. In the same year John Shakespeare applied to the College of Heralds for a grant of arms, basing the claim on services of his ancestors to Henry VII, the continued good reputation of the family, and John's marriage to "Mary, daughter and heiress of Robert Arden, of Wilmcote, gent." Since there is evidence to show that the financial, difficulties that had beset John Shakespeare before his son went to London had continued, and since the attempts of actors to obtain gentility by grants of arms were not uncommon, it is likely that the poet was the moving force in this matter. Though a draft granting this request was drawn up, it was not executed ; but in 1599 a renewed application was successful, the heralds giving an exemplification of the coat which the applicants claimed had been assigned them in 1568, "Gold, on a bend sable, a spear of the first, and for his crest or cognizance a falcon, his wings displayed argent, standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear gold steeled as aforesaid." The motto is "Non Sans Droit." These arms appear on the monument over Shakespeare's grave in Trinity Church in Stratford, and, impaled with the Hall arms, on the tombstone of his daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall.

A more substantial step towards restoring the standing of the family was taken when the poet bought on May 4, 1597, for sixty pounds, New Place, the largest house in Stratford. This was only the beginning of a considerable series of investments of the profits of his professional life in landed and other property in his native district. On his father's death in 1601 he inherited the two houses in Henley Street, the only real property of which the elder Shakespeare had retained possession ; and in one of these the poet's mother lived until her death in 1608. About a hundred and seven acres of arable land with common pasture appertaining to it was conveyed to the poet on May 1, 1602, by William and John Combe, of Warwick and Old Stratford respectively, in consideration of £320 ; and twenty acres of pasture land were acquired from the same owners in 1610. On September 28, 1602, the Court Rolls of the Manor of Rowington record the transfer to Shakespeare from Walter Getley of a cottage and garden in Chapel Lane, Stratford. In 1605 he paid £440 for the thirty-one years remaining of a lease of the Stratford tithes, a purchase which involved him in a considerable amount of litigation. It was through this acquisition that he became involved in the dispute over the attempted inclosure of certain common fields belonging g to the town of Stratford. John Combe, who died in July, 1614, bequeathing Shakespeare £5, left as heir a son, William, who with Arthur Mannering, sought to annex to their respective estates the aforesaid common lands. After having secured a deed safe-guarding himself as part owner of the tithes from any loss that might result from the inclosure, Shakespeare seems to have lent his influence to Combe, in spite of the requests of the corporation for aid. The inclosure was not carried out.

His investments were not confined to his native county; A deed of sale has come down to us concerning the purchase of a house near the Blackfriars Theater in London, in March, 1613. The price was £140; but on' the following day, March 11, Shakespeare gave the previous owner, Henry Walker, a mortgage deed for £60, which he never seems to have paid off. There is evidence of his ownership of other property in Blackfriars in three documents, recently discovered by Professor C. W. Wallace, dealing with a suit in Chancery, and dated April 26, May 15, and May 22, 1615, in which Shakespeare and others sought to obtain from one Matthew Bacon possession of certain deeds pertaining to their property within the precinct of Blackfriars.

Other traces of Shakespeare's business transactions suggest that he was by no means averse to going to law. After ,his resumption of relations with Stratford in 1596, we find his parents engaged (November, 1597) in a lawsuit, the outcome of which does not appear to recover the mortgaged estate of Asbies, which had formed part of his mother's inheritance. The years 1600, 1604, 1608, and 1609 all contain records of suits by the poet to recover small sums of money ; and, on the other hand, we find tax collectors in London seeking payment of taxes incurred on his goods while he lived in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopgate, in 1593 or 1594. These claims Shakespeare satisfied some years later when he was living across the river in Southwark. The documents of a law case of 1612, recently discovered by Professor C. W. Wallace in the Public Record office, include Shakespeare's deposition as a witness and add some interesting information. It appears that, possibly from 1598 to 1604, he lodged in the house of Christopher Mountjoy, a wigmaker, at the corner of Muggle and Silver streets near Cripple-gate. In 1604 he had aided in arranging the marriage of Mary Mountjoy to her father's apprentice, Stephen Bellott. The lawsuit was brought by Bellott against his father-in-law to secure the dowry and promise of inheritance. Shakespeare's negotiations in regard to the marriage play an important part in the various depositions, as the question whether a dowry of £50 had been promised was crucial to the case. Shakespeare himself was examined on September 11, but the poet failed to remember that a definite sum had been agreed upon for the dowry.

Further evidence relating to Shakespeare as a man of substance is to be fqund in letters in the Stratford archives, written by prominent townsmen. One, from Abraham Sturley to a relative in London on the business of the town of Stratford, dated January 24, 1597—8 contains a reference to "Mr. Shaksper" as "willing to disburse some money upon some odd yard-land or, other at Shottery or near about us," and suggests urging upon Shakespeare the purchase of the tithes. It seems fairly certain from other letters of Sturleyl's that this one was addressed to Richard Quiney, father of Shakespeare's future son-in-law, Thomas Quineyl. On October 25 of the same year, this Richard Quiney wrote from the Bell in Carter Lane, London, "to my loving friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shackespere," asking for his help with £30. From a letter from Abraham Sturley to Richard Quiney on the following fourth of November it appears that Quiney was seeking an enlargement of the charter of Stratford, with a view to an increase of revenue. In Sturley's previous letter reference had been made to an attempt to gain "an ease and discharge of such taxes and subsidies wherewith our town is like to be charged, and I assure you I am in great fear and doubt by no means able to pay." In this extreme condition of affairs Sturley heard with satisfaction "that our countryman Mr. Win. Shak. would procure us money, which I will like of as I shall here when, and where, and how ; and I pray let not go that occasion if it may sort to any indifferent conditions." The poet is probably referred to in still another letter, of about the same period, to Richard Quiney, this time from his father Adrian : "If you bargain with Wm. Sha., or receive money therefor, bring your money home that you may." All of these documents carry the unmistakable implication that William Shakespeare in London was regarded by his fellow-townsmen as a person of resources, likely to be of service to his friends in financial stress.

If we return now to the evidences of Shakespeare's professional progress, we shall see whence these re-sources were derived. Confining ourselves still to explicit and unambiguous records, we find the year 1598 marking Shakespeare's emergence as actor and dramatist into a somewhat opener publicity. The quarto editions of Richard II and Love's Labour's Lost, issued that year, are the first plays to exhibit his name on the title-page ; and in the 1616 folio edition of Ben Jonson's works, attached to Every Man in His Humour, is the statement : "This Comedie was first Acted in the yeere 1598 by the then L. Chamberleyne his servants. The principal Comedians were Will. Shakespeare, Aug. Philips, Hen. Condel, Will. Slye, Will. Kempe, Ric. Burbadge, Joh. Hemings, Tho. Pope, Chr. Beeston, Joh. Dyke." These evidences of prominence are more than corroborated by the famous passage in the Palladis Tamia (1598) of Francis Meres, in which he not only compares the "mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare" with Ovid for his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, "his sugred sonnets among his private friends," but with Plautus and Seneca for his excellence "in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labors Lost, his Love Labours Wonne, his Midsummers Night Dreame, and his Merchant of Venice ; for tragedy, his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet." Barnfield in the same year harps on the "honey-flowing vein" of the author of Venus and Lucrece, and "honey-tongued" is again the opening epithet of John Weever's epigram "Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare" (1599), in which "Romeo" and "Richard " share the praises with the narrative poems. From this time on, publishers of the plays recognize Shakespeare's reputation by generally placing his name on the title-page : a form of compliment which the author probably did not appreciate when it was extended, as in the case of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), to pirated works, some of which were meant to be private, and others were not by him at all.

Reminiscences or references to his works are frequent in contemporary literature. Among these are several passages in two plays, The Return from Parnassus, acted in St. John's College, Cambridge, about 1601. In one passage, Kempe, the famous actor, speaks slightingly of the acting qualities of the plays by university pens and continues, "Why here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay, and Ben Jonson too," — another identification of the actor and the dramatist Shakespeare. Another character in these plays prefers Shakespeare to Chaucer, Gower, and Spenser. Less enthusiastic though sincerely appreciative is John Webster, who, in the address to the Reader prefixed to The White Devil, 1612 acknowledges his indebtedness to his predecessors, Chapman, Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher and to "the right happy and copious industry of Master Shakespeare, Master Dekker, and Master Heywood." Though of widely varying significance and interest, the numerous allusions to Shakespeare or to his plays give further testimony to his growing reputation.

While it is probable that the sale of Shakespeare's poems brought him in some financial return, he is not likely to have profited from the publication of his plays. The playwright at that time sold his product to the manager or company, and thereby gave up all rights. To the end of the sixteenth century managers usually paid from £5 to £11 for a new play, adding a bonus in the case of success, and sometimes a share of the proceeds of the second performance. During the first decade of Shakespeare's activity as a dramatist, then, we may calculate that he obtained for about twenty-one plays an average of about £10 each, which, making the usual allowance for the greater purchasing power of money, would be equivalent to about $400, or an annual income of about $800. During his second decade the prices for plays had so risen that he may be estimated to have received about twice as much from this source as in the early half of his career.

More profitable than playwriting was acting. Lee estimates Shakespeare's salary as an actor before 1599 at £100 a year at least, exclusive of special rewards for court performances, and we know that by 1635 an actor-shareholder, such as Shakespeare latterly was, had a salary of £180. Besides this, he became about 1599 a sharer, with Heming, Condell, Philips, and others, in the receipts of the Globe Theater, erected in 1597–8 by Richard and Cuthbert Burbage. The annual income from a single share was over £200, and Shakespeare may have had more than one. In 1610 he became a sharer also in the smaller Blackfriars Theater, after it had been acquired by the Burbages.

The evidence thus accumulated of Shakespeare's having acquired a substantial fortune is corroborated by what we know of the earnings of other members of his profession, and it leaves no mystery about the source of the capital which he invested in real property in Stratford and London.

The death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I improved rather than impaired Shakespeare's prospects. A patent, dated May 19, 1603, authorizes the King's servants, "Lawrence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage . . . and the rest of their associats freely to use and exercise the arte and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, histories, interludes, moralls, pastorals, stage-plaies, and such other like as they have already studied, or hereafter shall use or studie, as well for the recreation of our lovinge subjects, as for our solace and pleasure when we shall thinke good to see them, duringe our pleasure." By this document the Lord Chamberlain's Company became the King's, and so remained during the rest of Shakespeare's connection with the stage. At least a dozen instances are recorded in the Revels Accounts of the Company's having acted before his Majesty, and on the occasion of a performance before the court at the Earl of Pembroke's mansion of Wilton House, £30 was given them "by way of his majesty's reward." Shakespeare's name stands first in a list of nine actors who walked in a procession on the occasion of James's entry into London, March 15, 1604, when each actor was granted four yards and a half of scarlet cloth for cloaks for the occasion.

This recognition by the court is the latest evidence we have of Shakespeare's belonging to the profession of acting. He is mentioned in the Jonson Folio of 1616 as playing a part in Sejanus in 1603 ; but his name is absent from the list of the King's servants, as his company had now become, when they performed Volpone in 1605, The Alchemist in 1610, and Catiline in 1611. It would thus seem that he gave up acting shortly after the death of Elizabeth.

The date of his withdrawal from London to Stratford is less precisely indicated. The likelihood is that the transference was gradual; for after 1611, the date usually conjectured for his retirement from the metropolis, we have indications of at least occasional activities there, as in the collaboration with Fletcher, now generally admitted, in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and in the business dealings in Blackfriars already described. On the other hand, he had disposed of his shares in the theaters before his death ; as we have seen, he appears frequently in his last years in connection with municipal affairs in Stratford ; and later formal references are usually to "William Shakespeare, gent., of Stratford-on-Avon." It was during this period that we find record of the poet serving in a new capacity. There has recently been discovered in the Household Book at Belvoir Castle the following entry : "Item 31 Martij (1613) to Mr. Shakspeare in gold about my Lordes Impreso xiiij s. To Richard Burbadge for paynting and making yt in gold xliiij s. (Total) iiij " viij 8." This means that the Earl of Rutland, who took part in a tournament at Whitehall on March 24, 1613, had the heraldic device for his shield made by Shakespeare and Burbage,—Burbage, whose skill as painter is well known, being probably responsible for the design and Shakespeare for the motto. Rutland was a friend and associate of that Earl of Southampton to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his two narrative poems.

The remaining documents are chiefly domestic. On June 5, 1607, his elder daughter Susanna married John Hall, a physician of Stratford, who succeeded the poet in the occupancy of New Place ; and on September 9, 1608, the Stratford Register records the burial of his mother, "Mayry Shaxspere, wydowe." His younger daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney on February 10, 1616, with such haste and informality as led to the imposition of a fine by the ecclesiastical court at Worcester. In the previous month Shakespeare had a draft of his will drawn up by Francis Collins, a solicitor of Warwick, and after certain changes this was signed in March. On the twenty-fifth of April the Registers show the burial of " Will. Shakespeare gent." The monument over his grave gives the day of his death as April 23 (Old Style). He was buried in the chancel of Stratford Church, and on the grave may still be read the much discussed lines :

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare ;
Bleste be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

William Hall, who visited Stratford in 1694, records the tradition that the poet himself composed the lines in a style calculated to impress sextons and prevent them from digging up his bones and throwing them into the adjacent charnel house. However this may be, the grave has remained unopened.

Seven years later, thirty-six of Shakespeare's plays were collected by two of his former colleagues of the theater, Heming and Condell, whom he had remembered in his will, and published in the famous First Folio. The preliminary documents in this volume, printed in our appendix, close significantly the contemporary records of the man, and bind together the burgess of Stratford with the actor of London and the dramatist of the world.

Of Shakespeare's handwriting nothing that can be called his with complete assurance has survived except six signatures ; one to the deposition in the matter of the Mountjoy marriage ; one to the deed of the house he bought in Blackfriars in 1613, one to the mortgage-deed on the same house, executed on the day after the purchase, and one on each of the three sheets of paper containing his will, the last of which has in addition the words "By me." All six are somewhat crabbed specimens of the old English style of handwriting, which is the character he would naturally acquire in such a school as that at Stratford in the sixteenth century, as we learn from surviving examples of the copy-books of the period. The manuscripts of his plays have gone the way of all, or almost all, the autographs of the men of letters, of his time, nor is it likely that future research will add materially to what we have. The exact signatures, though it is difficult to be certain of all the letters, seem to show a variation in spelling — Shakspere, Shakespere, or Shakspeare. His father's name appears in the records of the town in sixteen different forms, an illustration of the inconsistency in the orthography of proper names, as of other words, which was common with people of that time of greater worldly consequence and education than the poet or his father. The form of the name used in the present edition is that which generally appears on the title-pages of plays ascribed to him ; it is that which he himself used in signing the dedications of his two poems to the Earl of Southampton ; it is that which occurs in the legal documents having to do with his property ; and it is the common spelling in the literary allusions of the seventeenth century.

Our knowledge of Shakespeare's personal appearance is also far from being definite. The bust on the monument in the church at Stratford was cut apparently before 1623 by a Dutch stone cutter called Gerard Janssen. It was originally colored ; probably the eyes light hazel, and the hair auburn. Its crude workmanship renders it unreliable as a likeness. The frontispiece to the First Folio was engraved for that work by Martin Droeshout, who was only twenty-two years old at the time, so that he is more likely to have made it from a portrait than from memory. No portrait has been found that seems actually to have served this purpose, though there are resemblances between the engraving and the portrait, dated 1609, presented to the Memorial Picture Gallery at Stratford by Mrs. Charles Flower. The numerous other portraits that have been claimed as likenesses of the dramatist have varying degrees of probability, but none has a pedigree without a flaw. Those with most claim to interest are the Ely Palace portrait, the Chandos portrait, the Garrick Club bust, and the Kesselstadt death-mask.

Such is the very considerable body of authenticated facts about the life of Shakespeare. Lacking though they are in intimate and personal touches, they can hardly be said to leave the main outlines of his career shadowy or mysterious. But they do not by any means exhaust the data at our disposal for forming an impression of the poet's personality. A large mass of tradition, of less than legal validity but much of it of a high degree of probability, has come down to us, the sources of which may now be detailed.

In the seventeenth century we have several biographical and critical collections in which Shakespeare figures, the most important being these : Fuller's Worthies of England (1662), Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Men (compiled 1669-1696), Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum (1675), and Langbaine's English Dramatic Poets (1691). The two last are for strictly biographical purposes negligible, though interesting as early criticism. Fuller began his work in 1643, so that he may be sup-posed to have had access to oral tradition from men who actually knew Shakespeare. He gives few facts, but some hints as to temperament. "Though his genius generally was jocular and inclining him to festivity, yet he could, when so disposed, be solemn and serious. . . . Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson ; which two I beheld like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war ; master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning ; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."

Among the actors who, with Shakespeare, took part in the first production of Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, was Christopher Beeston, who when he died in 1637 was manager of the Cockpit Theater in Drury Lane. He was succeeded in this office by his son William, who became in his old age the revered transmitter to Restoration players and playwrights of the traditions of the great age in which he had spent his youth. From him, and from another actor of the same period, John Lacy, as well as from other sources, the antiquary John Aubrey collected fragments of gossip for his lives of the English poets. According to Aubrey's notes, confused and unequal in value, Shakespeare " did act exceeding well"; " understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a school-master in the country" ; "was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit." It is Aubrey, too, that reports that John Shakespeare was a butcher, and he adds, "I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade.. . . When he killed a calf, he would doe it in a high style and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher's son in this towne, that was held not at all inferior to him for a naturall wit, his acquaintance, and coetanean, but dyed young." The same writer is authority for the statement that it was at Grendon, near Oxford, on the road from Stratford to London, that the dramatist "happened to take the humour of the con-stable in Midsummer Night's Dream" — a remark that may refer loosely either to Bottom and his friends, or to Dogberry and Verges. He also ascribes to the poet an apocryphal epigram on a Stratford usurer, John Combe.

The Rev. John Ward, vicar of Stratford-on-Avon for 1662 to 1668, kept about the time of his coming to this charge a diary in which he relates certain echoes of the conversation of the town at a time when the poet's nephews were still living there. From him we hear that in his elder days Shakespeare retired to Stratford ; that in his most active period he wrote two plays a year ; that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year ; and that his death was due to a fever following a "merry meeting" in Stratford with Jonson and Drayton.

An additional reference to the tradition of Shakespeare's convivial tendencies is to be found in the legend of his visit to Bidford, six miles from Stratford, with a group of cronies to compare capacities with the Bidford Drinkers. According to the earliest version of this somewhat widespread tale, that of a visitor to Stratford in 1762, "he enquired of a shepherd for the Bidford Drinkers, who replied they were absent but the Bidford sippers were at home, and, I suppose, continued the sheepkeeper, they will be sufficient for you ; and so, indeed, they were ; he was forced to take up his lodging under that tree [the crab-tree, long pointed out] for some hours."

The earliest description of Shakespeare as "a glover's son" is found in the memoranda of Archdeacon Plume of Rochester, written about 1656. Plume adds, "Sir John Mennes saw once his old father in his shop — a merry cheeked old man that said, ` Will was a good honest fellow, but he darest have crackt a jeast with him at any time."' No Sir John Mennes who could have seen John Shakespeare is known, but the saying may well be the echo of contemporary gossip.

A manuscript preserved at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, contains certains notes made before 1688 by the Rev. William Fulman. Among them are interpolated others (given here in italics) by the Rev. Richard Davies previously to 1708. "William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire about 1563-4. Much given to all unluckinesse in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sr. . . . Lucy, who had him whipt and sometimes imprisoned, and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement; but his reveng was so sweet that he is his Justice Clod pate, and calls him a great man, and that in allusion to his name bore three lowses rampant for his arms. From an actor of playes he became a composer. He dyed Apr. 23, 1616, aetat 53, probably at Stratford, for there he is buried, and hath a monument (Dugd. p. 520), on which he lays a heavy curse upon any one who shall remove his bones. He dyed a papist." The inaccuracy of Davies's version of facts otherwise known warns us against too great a reliance on his individual contribution.

A certain John Dowdall left a short account of places he visited in Warwickshire in 1693. He describes the monument and tombstone, giving inscriptions, and adds, "The Clarke that shew'd me this church is above 80 years old ; he says that this Shakespeare was formerly in this towne bound apprentice to a butcher, but that he run from his master to London, and there was received into the play-house as a serviture, and by this means had an opportunity to be what he after-wards prov'd. He was the best of his family, but the male line is extinguished. Not one for feare of the curse abovesaid dare touch his gravestone, tho his wife and daughters did earnestly desire to be leyd in the same grave with him." The traditional explanation of the curse as reported by William Hall, has already been given.

The first regular biography of Shakespeare is that by Nicholas Rowe, written as a preface to his edition of the plays which, issued in 1709, stands at the beginning of modern Shakespearean interpretation. Though compiled nearly a century after the poet's death, Rowe's life has claims upon our credit more substantial than might be expected. His chief source of information was the great actor Betterton, a Shakespeare enthusiast, who had himself taken pains to accumulate facts concerning his hero. Much of Betterton's material came to him through John Lowin and Joseph Taylor, two actors who had been colleagues of Shakespeare's and who lived into the Restoration period. According to John Downes, a theatrical prompter in the end of the seventeenth century, these veterans brought to the new generation the actual instruction they had received from the dramatist himself on the playing of the parts respectively of Henry VIII and Hamlet. Theatrical and other traditions reached Rowe also through Sir William D'Avenant, the leading figure in the revival of the stage after 1660. D'Avenant's father was host of the Crown Inn at Oxford, where, according to the statements of Aubrey and of Anthony Wood in 1692, Shakespeare was accustomed to put up on his journeys between London and Stratford. Wood reports that the elder D'Avenant was a "man of grave and saturnine disposition, yet an admirer of plays and playmakers, especially Shakespeare," and that Mrs. D'Avenant was "a very beautiful woman, of a good wit and conversation." William D'Avenant was generally reputed to be Shakespeare's godson, and Aubrey, whose gossip must be accepted with great hesitation, says that he was not averse to being taken as his son. In spite of the fact of this scandal's appearance in various seventeenth century anecdotes, the more careful account of the D'Avenants by Wood points to its rejection. The story is usually linked with another recorded by the lawyer Manningham in his Diary, March 13, 1602, that Burbage, who had been playing Richard III, was overheard by Shakespeare making an appointment with a lady in the audience. When the tragedian arrived at the rendezvous, he found Shakespeare in possession ; and on knocking was answered that "William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third."

To return to the D'Avenants, the elder son, Robert, used to tell that when he was a child Shakespeare had given him "a hundred kisses." Sir William was Rowe's authority for the statement that the Earl of Southampton once gave the poet £1000 "to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to" ; but no purchase of this magnitude by Shakespeare is recorded. D'Avenant himself was said to own a complimentary letter written to Shakespeare by James I, and the publisher Lintot says that the Duke of Buckinghamshire claimed to have examined the document. The story about Shakespeare's first connection with the theater consisting in his holding horses outside, told first in a manuscript note preserved in the Library of the University of Edinburgh, 1748, is also credited to D'Avenant. According to this tradition, frequently repeated, the future dramatist organized a regular corps of boys and monopolized the business, so that "as long as the practice of riding to the play-house continued the waiters that held the horses retained the appellation of Shakespeare's Boys."

Many of the natural inferences to be drawn from the data in the first part of the chapter are given by Rowe as facts. Thus he states positively that Shakespeare attended a free school, from which he was withdrawn owing to "the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of assistance at home." He repeats the deer-stealing anecdote, with further detail. As to his acting, Rowe reports, " Tho' I have inquir'd, I could never meet with any further account of him this way than that the top of his performance was the ghost in his own Hamlet." He corroborates the general con-temporary opinion of Shakespeare's fluency and spontaneity in composition. As to his personality, he says, "Besides the advantages of his wit, he was in himself a good-natur'd man, of great sweetness in his manners and a most agreeable companion." Rowe credits Shakespeare with having prevented his company from rejecting one of Jonson's plays at a time when Jonson was altogether unknown, and is inclined to consider the latter ungenerous in his critical remarks on Shakespeare.

William Oldys, in his manuscript Adversaria, now in the British Museum, reports a few further fragments of gossip, the chief of which is that Shakespeare's brother Gilbert was discovered still living about 1660 and was questioned by some actors as to his memory of William. All he could give them was a vague recollection of his having played the part of Adam in As You Like It.

Such are the most significant details which tradition, unauthenticated but often plausible, has added to our knowledge of the documents. There exists also a very considerable amount of literary allusion to Shakespeare's productions from 1594 onwards, which is easily accessible in collected form. The most notable of these are the comments of his friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson. Besides the splendid eulogy prefixed to the First Folio, Jonson talked of Shakespeare's lack of art to Drummond of Hawthornden, and expressed himself with affection and discrimination in the famous passage in Timber.

After all allowances have been made for the inaccuracies of oral tradition, we may safely gather from those concerning Shakespeare some inferences which help to clothe the naked skeleton of the documented facts. It is clear that, within a generation after Shakespeare's death, common opinion both in Stratford and London recognized that in the actor and dramatist a great man had passed away, that he had been in a worldly sense highly successful, though starting from unpropitious beginnings, that he wrote with great swiftness and ease, and that in his personal relations he was gentle, kindly, genial, and witty. That the bailiff's son who returned to his native town as a prosperous gentleman, is to be identified with the actor and shareholder of the London theaters, and with the author of the plays and poems, it is difficult to see how there can remain any reasonable doubt ; and, though the facts which prove this identity contain little to illuminate the vast intellect and soaring imagination which created Hamlet and Lear, they contain nothing irreconcilable with the personality which these creations imply rather than reveal.

One further source of information about Shakespeare's personality has figured largely in some biographies. The Sonnets were published in 1609, evidently without Shakespeare's cooperation or consent, with a dedication by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, to a Mr. W. H., " the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets." All attempts to identify this Mr. W. H. have failed. He may have been merely the person who procured the manuscript for Thorpe, though the language of the dedication seems to imply that he was the young gentleman who is the subject of a consider-able number of the poems. Of this young gentleman and of a dark lady who seems to have been the occasion of other of the sonnets, much has been written, but no facts of Shakespeare's life have been established beyond those which are obvious to every reader : that Shakespeare wrote admiring and flattering sonnets to a young man who is urged to marry (and who may have been the Earl of Southampton, or an unknown Mr. W. H., or another) ; and that he treats of an intrigue with some unknown woman. The identification of the young man of the first seventeen sonnets with other friends who are praised in later sonnets is not certain, though in some cases probable ; and much research and conjecture have entirely failed to make clear the relations between the poet, the rival poet, the lady, and the friend. The Sonnets furnish us with no knowledge of Shakespeare's personal affairs, and only a meager basis even for gossip as to some of his experiences with men and women.

Another kind of inquiry has sought to discover in the sonnets not facts or incidents of Shakespeare's life, but indications of his emotional experiences. The results of such inquiry are manifestly outside the scope of this chapter. For their discussion, the reader must be referred to Professor Alden's introduction to the Tudor edition of the Sonnets. Shakespeare's personality as it is reflected from his works will also be considered in the concluding chapter of this volume. So much stress, however, has been placed on interpretations of the sonnets, and these have so often occupied an exaggerated place in his biography, that it may be worth while to remark that whether these lyrical poems are genuine and personal or are conventional and literary, and whether they make the poet more clearly discernible or not, they must certainly be taken not alone by themselves, but in connection with the dramas as affording us an impression of the man who wrote them.

Of the sonnets, it may be said in almost the same words just now used of the documents and traditions, that whether they contain much or little to illuminate the vast intellect and soaring imagination which created Hamlet and Lear, they contain nothing irreconcilable with the personality which these creations imply rather than reveal.

Home | More Articles | Email: