THIS is the tri-centennial year in which we
celebrate the famous defeat of the Invincible Spanish Armada; and in
proudly glancing back to the period when our little country lived thus
greatly, we shall find few pictures so attractive in the long gallery of
the past as that of England in the time of "Good Queen Bess," the "Gloriana"
of Spenser's Faery Queen; she who moves amongst the fine spirits of
her day all smilingly surrounded with the strength of a mighty people,
that lift her up, in their love and worship, a whole heaven above them.
But it is not Queen Bess who is the most important personage
of her era in our eyes to-day.
In that Elizabethan group of glory there is one bright
particular star which shines out large and luminous above the rest.
This we look up to with never- ceasing wonder and delight. There are
many near it, but not one that comes second to it. We should like to
get a little nigher and look a little closer into the face of it; if we
only had a glass to draw down the star of Shakspeare sufficiently near so
that we might make out the human features, amid the dazzle of his
intellectual light. How few of all who ever read his works, or make
use of his name, have any adequate, or even shapable, conception of the
Man Shakspeare. He who, of all poets, comes the nearest home to us
with his myriad touches of nature, yet seems the most remote from us in
his own mortal personality. And still we stand looking up at that
lustrous orb on tiptoe with longing, and want to see his "visage in his
We know that somewhere at the centre lives the spirit of all
the brightness, however lost in light. Throbs of real human life,
pulses of pleasure and thrills of pain, first made the rays well forth and
radiate with all his radiance, and still shoot out each sparkle of
splendour and every gleam of grace. Shakspeare's own
life—Shakspeare Himself, must be at the heart of it all. Shakspeare
Himself, not Bacon, nor another. Although a miracle of a man, and, as a
creative artist, just the nearest to an earthly representative of that
Creator or Evolver who may be everywhere felt in his works, but is nowhere
visible, yet he was a man, and one of the most intensely human that ever
walked our world. Thackeray has pleasantly remarked that he would
have liked to black the shoes of William Shakspeare, just to have looked
up into his face. And what would we not give if we could only get
one of those accurate sun-pictures, so common now-a-days, a carte
of his visit to our earth? Just to look on the face of him who is so
far ahead of all other poets that we measure our greatest writers not by
their distance from us so much as by their nearness to him. Just to
see, in human form, that glorious dome of thought which overarched the
"highest heaven of invention" in Shakspeare's brow—the eyes deep with
life; the lines of the face that tell how far the waves of emotion have
reached and wasted; the ripe, cordial mouth, with its lurking quips of
humour in the corners; the rich health of spirit and body, touched and
tempered with a stately reserve; and all the vital activities of
temperament crowned with a great thoughtful calm. So, at least, we
think of him. So we picture him. Yet there is nothing more
likely than that we should be considerably disappointed with his personal
appearance if it were possible for us to meet Shakspeare in the streets of
Stratford, and could look upon him as he lived, aged about fifty. To
us he is all immortal now. We might be looking for the halo, and the
garland, and the singing-robes about him, with the lyre in his hands
perhaps, or maybe the wings at his shoulders; whereas we should probably
meet with a man of business, weather-worn, with wise wrinkles round his
eyes, with a hat set firmly on his fine forehead. Good sound boots
on his feet—not sandals. And he, instead of being rapt away in a
fit of inspiration, or "booing" his poetry like Wordsworth, might be
carrying samples of corn, and devoutly meditating the price current, or
congratulating himself on having sold out his shares the year before the
Globe theatre was burned down, as we know he did. If we were told
that this was the man, he would hardly be OUR
Shakspeare. And so we should still have to seek in his works for the
most elusive Protean spirit that ever played bo-peep with us from behind
the mask of matter in the human form.
It has been asserted by the obtuse critic and uncongenial
commentator, Steevens; that all we know with any degree of certainty
concerning Shakspeare is that he "was born at Stratford-on-Avon, married
and had children there, went to London, where he commenced actor and wrote
poems and plays, returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was
buried." Indeed, we have dwelt so long and so loudly on the little
we know about Shakspeare personally, that certain foolish people have
taken it into their heads to think we might never know the difference if
somebody else were put in his place and proclaimed to be the writer of his
plays. But Steevens wrote a century ago, when there were no such
collections of material extant as Halliwell-Phillipps' Outlines,
and Dr. Ingleby's Centurie of Prayse. Still, the recorded
facts of Shakspeare's life are few, and the documents are very scarce.
We have not the personal data ready at hand for making a life-length
portrait, finished in every feature, and clothed in the vesture of an
ample biography. We have not got our Shakspeare to bring him home in
any such familiar way. The Protean spirit has eluded our grasp in
his outer life almost as effectually as he does in his works. We can
at most move round about him at a distance, and make out his features
according to our mental vision—to which love may have added something of
its precious seeing—and grasp the skirts of his human personality here
and there, in accordance with contemporary fact, and the characteristics
reflected unconsciously by his Plays and Poems.
It is my present object to try briefly to get at the man
himself, and make out his features so far as our means will allow, by
extracting what spirit of Shakspeare we can from his works, taking
advantage of the fresh data to be derived from the present reading of the
Sonnets, and clothing that spirit as best we may; a trait of human
personality, a tint of human colour, a touch of real life, being of more
value for my purpose than all the husks of Antiquarianism, although I have
also browsed amongst these long and hungrily. In retelling or
re-touching an old story, my plea is that I adduce fresh evidence, present
novel facts, and bring new witnesses into the Court of Criticism.
Therefore I ask for another hearing. Over three centuries have
passed since the little child opened its eyes on the low ceiling and bare
walls of the poor birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon, to grow up into that
immortal godsend of a man whom we call William Shakspeare. In all
this long procession of years we meet with no other such face looking out
on us; the eyes rainy or sunny with the tears and laughters of all time!
No other such genius has come to transfigure English literature. All
this while the world has been getting hints of what the man Shakspeare
was, and how infinitely wonderful and precious was the work he did; how
richly ennobling to us was the legacy of his life. Innumerable
writers have thrown what light they could upon his page to help the world
on its way, but, as Coleridge has said, "No comprehension has yet been
able to draw the line of circumscription round this mighty mind so as to
say to Itself, 'I have seen the whole.'" In Ben Jonson's words—
"Nothing but the round
Large clasp of Nature such a wit can bound."
cannot agree with Goethe's declaration that everything said of Shakspeare
is inadequate. Any true thing said truly is adequate in virtue of
its being true, and a good many true things have been said amongst the
many that may not be actually true. Nor shall we soon grow weary of
any true thing said concerning Shakspeare.
That Spanish Emperor who fancied he could have improved the
plan of creation if he had only been consulted, would hardly have managed
to better the time, the place, and circumstances of Shakspeare's birth.
It seems supremely fit that his birthplace should have been in the heart
of England! The world could not have been more ripe, or England more
ready—the stage of the national life more nobly peopled—the scenes more
fittingly draped—than they were for his reception. It was the very
quickening-time of a loftier national life—a time when souls were made in
earnest, and life grew quick within and large without. The
full-statured spirit of the nation had just found its sea-legs and waved
its wings full-feathered on the wind. The new spirit of adventure
was just beginning to get daringly afloat, to show that the little Island
was the natural home of the kings of the sea.
Into a mixed, multiform, many-coloured world was William
Shakspeare born, three hundred years ago. Old times and an ancient
faith had been passing away—like the leaves of Autumn wearing their
richest glory of colour—and every rent of ruin and chink of old decay
were all in flower with the new life. Shakspeare's England was
picturesque to look upon, as is our woodland at the time of the year when
Winter still reigns in the bare dark boughs above, and the young Spring is
coming up in a mist of leafy green and a burst of song birds below.
In the year of Shakspeare's birth we find that the sum of two shillings
was paid by the corporation for defacing an image of the ancient faith in
the chapel at Stratford. The cucking stool was still a real terror
for wives of a termagant tongue. Fellows sat up all night in the
stocks, on the village green, making the darkness hideous with their
drunken ribaldry. Troops of strolling players wandered the country
through, and won a merrier welcome than did the Wandering Friars who
preceded them of old. The citizens of London were still in the habit
of going forth on the 1st of May to gather the hawthorn bloom, and "get
some green," as Chaucer has it, in the village of Charing; and the violets
grew where the effigy of Nelson now stands mast-headed on that terrible
monument of his in Trafalgar Square. English lasses would wash their
faces in the May-dew, and join the lads in a game of hotcockles or
barley-break. The fires of Smithfield had only just smouldered down,
leaving a smoke in the souls of men that was sure to burst forth into a
nobler, intenser flame of freer national life; and fiercely in the minds
of Englishmen there burned the memory of "bloody Mary." The spirit
of a new time had entered the land, to take shape in a proud array of
great deeds, and a literature unparagoned; such as should place this
England of ours side by side if not high above either Greece or Rome.
The stage of political life was crowded with splendid forms in sumptuous
attire; heroes, statesmen, poets, sea-kings, magnificent men, with women
to match! Heroes who, like Drake, won their victories with such a
dashing dare-devilry; and others who won and wore their glory with a
Philip Sidney's grace! A rare group of men and women who came as
courtiers into the presence of Elizabeth, looking as though they had just
walked through a shower of jewels; and spread their braveries as in the
very sun of pageantry.
Into such a mixed, multiform, many-coloured, magnificent time
was William Shakspeare born, April 23rd, 1564. His father came of
the fine old yeoman class who clung to the bit of soil which their
families had cultivated for ages, and who were ready to fight for it in
the day of England's need. This was the breed of men that served
their country so well as the Bowmen of Cressy and the Billmen of
Agincourt. One gets an idea that Shakspeare's father was a man who
had seen better days, but who was gradually sinking in the world, and
losing his hold of his little bit of landed possession. He seems
dispirited, and the burden of his family is too much for him. His
circumstances declined from 1571—somewhat rapidly. He had held the
highest office at Stratford, and entertained both parsons and players at
his house, and been liberal in his gifts to the poor. We learn that
in the year 1552 he was certainly doing business as a glover, and in 1556
he brought an action against Henry Field for unjustly detaining eighteen
quarters of barley, which looks as though he were then a maltster or
farmer. In 1565 he was chosen an alderman; in 1569 he was
high-bailiff, and thenceforward bears the title of magister. In
1571-2 he was chief alderman. In 1579 he is styled a yeoman.
He was in pretty good circumstances when the Poet was born, having a small
landed estate near Stratford and some property in the town. It
appears as though he met with a great and sudden reverse of fortune about
the year 1578, whereby he became no longer worshipful; what or how we are
unable to conjecture. In 1587 we find him in prison for debt, and in
1592 we find his name in a list of persons who, it is supposed, were
afraid to go to church on account of debt, and for fear of process, or
being served with a summons.
When the boy Shakspeare was five years of age, his father, as
high-bailiff, entertained the players. This is the earliest notice
we have of theatrical performances in the town. And in all
likelihood the child caught his first glimpse in the Stratford Guildhall
of that fairy realm in which he was to become the mightiest magician that
ever waved the enchanter's wand, and, as the trumpet sounded for the third
time and the dramatic vision was unveiled, we may imagine how the
yearnings of a new life stirred within him, and he would be dreamingly
drawn toward those rare creatures that seemed to have no touch of common
earthiness as they walked so radiant in such a world of wonder. It
would be an event, indeed—that first sight of the Players!
It is curious to notice, as we are searching for facts
respecting the life of Shakspeare, that in the year 1558 it is recorded,
as if in smiling mockery of our endeavours, that Shakspeare's father was
fined fourpence for not keeping his gutters clean! And again he is
fined twelvepence for the same reason.
It is pleasant to know that Shakspeare could have his fair
share of a mother's tenderness, and was not compelled too early to fall
into the ranks by his father's side and fight the grim battle against
poverty, with childhood's small hands and weary feet.
Shakspeare's mother was Mary Arden, youngest daughter of
Robert Arden of Wilmecote, the Wincote where Marian Hacket chalked up the
score of fourteen pence behind the door against that good customer of
hers, Christopher Sly, old Sly's son of Burton-Heath. By the bye,
the name of Arden or Ardern is taken to mean the wooded height, but that
derivation does not go back far enough. Ard, Art, or Old is the
ancient word for the height, but Erne or Ern means an eagle.
Therefore Arderne, whence Arden, denoted the high place of the eagle.
That Shakspeare should descend from the eagle's perch is prettily
appropriate! The old British word for wood, i.e. cuit or cote,
enters into the name of Wilmecote.
Nearness to Nature we may look on as the great desideratum
for the nurture of a national poet, and this was secured to Shakspeare.
He came of good healthy yeoman blood, he belonged to a race that has
always been heartily national, and clung to their bit of soil from
generation to generation—ploughed a good deal of their life into it, and
fought for it, too, in the day of their country's need. No doubt
Nature stores up much health and freshness of feeling, love of green
things, and songs of birds and quiet appreciation of all out-of-door
sights and sounds in men like these—carefully hoarding it until one day
it all finds expression, and the long and slowly-gathered hereditary
result breaks into immortal flower, when, in the fulness of time, the
Burns or Shakspeare is born.
Very little is known of the childhood of our supremest
Englishman. There is no reason to doubt that he was educated at the
Free School, Stratford, until his father was compelled to take him away to
help him in the business at home. Maybe the boy became an assistant,
or what we should now call a pupil teacher; and this would afford some
foundation for the tradition which makes a country schoolmaster of him.
As Dogberry has it, "to write and read comes by nature," and no doubt
Shakspeare found it so—in his case. He had the gift recognized by
Dogberry. We know fairly well what his little book-learning was.
A live lad like him would be reading Ovid and Cicero in Latin, and one or
two of the Greek writers by the time he was in his teens. There was
no such range of reading then as we have now, but the few books were often
better read, and these got more out of the reader. That is
the truest education which gets most out of the reader rather than out of
the book! There can be no doubt the boy was an adept, "epopt and
perfect" in the education that had to be acquired freely out of doors.
His acquaintanceship with external nature was at first hand and
first-rate. Nature wrote her own book over again in his mind, and
richly stored his memory for future use.
As a boy he knew the colours and patterns of all the birds'
eggs by robbing the nests; the number of legs on the caterpillar by
counting them; the red-tailed humble-bee by taking its bag of honey.
Fortunately apples were plentiful, or a few orchards might have suffered.
He knew them all—Bitter-sweetings, Pippins, Leathercoats, Pomewaters,
Warden-pies, Russets, and Apple-Johns. His knowledge of animals and
insects, their appearance, their works and ways, was derived directly from
nature. He was remarkably well versed in wild flowers, and they
always blossom in their proper season. He did not seek his botany in
books. His was the living letter of Nature's own font.
When he went to London, it was from the heart of the country,
with the country at the heart of him, and all the pictures photographed in
colours and in lustres all alive. Hence the country magic of his
sylvan scenes. Hence the country-born and country-bred who listen to
certain of his Plays and passages of poetry in London will look on the
stage with loving eyes, filled by the spring from an overflowing heart
that is far away in the country, the child-heart in the nature of the
woman or man to whom he will bring back the long-past life of the country
transfigured and glorified. The illusion is no longer theatrical,
the magic is real as that of nature. No other poet was ever such a
countryman in town.
But if we are to suppose that Shakspeare was of the trade or
profession that he seems to have known most about we shall be puzzled
indeed, for he seems to have known something of everything—not only what
men were, but all they could do. If his name had been John instead
of Will we should at once have identified him as the popular
Jack-of-all-trades, only, in his case, he seems to have been Master of
all. He was an all-round hand! Some of his Plays are full of
physic, and they say he was a doctor. Others, again, with some of
his Sonnets, are full of law, and not office-sweepings either. One
thinks he must have been a sailor. Another tells you he had all the
shepherd's fondness for young lambs. Another claims him as a brother
gardener. It has even been conjectured that he knew something of the
baking business, because he speaks of an offering being "unmixed with
seconds," that is, inferior flour. Another infers that he was a
butcher from the passage, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
rough-hew them as we may"—the butchers being accustomed to buy their
skewers rough-hewn, and it took a clever man to shape their ends.
The butcher was compelled to be his own divinity. Possibly Willie
never got so far in the butchering-line as the sharpening of skewers.
The truth no doubt is, that the boy helped his father in the business,
which may have included tending the sheep on their bit of land; killing
the sheep and selling the meat; dealing in the wool that grew on the
sheep, and even selling the gloves made from the wool. A man in the
position of Shakspeare's father generally tries to live in a small way by
a multiplicity of means.
It must be confessed that in the "making out" of Shakspeare
we continually vouch for more than is warranted or needed. This was
more especially so in the earlier estimates, when the object was to
magnify and make the most of him as a phenomenon. The very
matter-of-fact, dry-as-dust writer will as widely misinterpret the
testimony at times as the most fantastical. Thus Mr.
Halliwell-Phillipps, who expressly limits himself to furnishing a complete
collection of well-known facts, cannot resist the temptation to suggest
that Shakspeare's wife was a sufferer from mental derangement!
Even the anti-Shakspearean attempt on the life and works of Shakspeare
may have the effect of causing us to look still more closely to our
foundations in fact, and to make us more wary of vouching for too much.
We all do it, more or less, in the process of externalizing our idea of
Shakspeare. But a Judge like Lord Campbell ought to have known
better, or been more judicial than to assert that Sonnet 46 "is so
intensely legal in its language and imagery, that without a considerable
knowledge of English forensic procedure it cannot be fully understood." 
But is that so?—
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture's sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right:
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
(A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,)
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies:
To 'cide this title is impannellèd
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye's moiety, and the dear heart's part:
As thus; mine eye's due is thine outward part,
And my heart's right thine inward love of heart.
Surely it does not demand a lawyer, not to say a profound one, to read the
imagery of empanelling a jury, the plea for the plaintiff, the reply for
the defendant, followed by the verdict? And that is all the law
there is in the Sonnet. Moreover, the proceedings are not in their
proper order, for the plea and defence are both made before the jury is
empanelled to give the verdict, which is not altogether lawyer-like.
That Shakspeare ever served an apprenticeship to the law I do not suppose.
To say that he has a wider acquaintance with law—uses legal forms and
phrases more freely and unerringly than any other poet, is only to say
that we are speaking of Shakspeare in one of the many departments of
knowledge where, as a poet, he is unparalleled; he is not a whit more
wonderful in this than in so many other things. I think he obtained
his insight through a personal connection with some live spirit of a
friend, who could throw a light into the dark intricacies and cobwebbed
corners of the law, rather than from any dead drudgery in an attorney's
office. Nor have we far to seek for such a possible friend.
There was Greene, the attorney, a Stratford man, and a cousin of the Poet,
whose brain and books may have been at his service, and Shakspeare was the
man who could make more use of other men's knowledge than they could
themselves. The worst of it for the theory of his having been an
attorney's clerk is, that it will not account for his insight into Law.
My own notion is that there was some traditional right of property in the
family that had an influence on the mind of young Shakspeare, which led to
his looking up the law and poring over books belonging to his cousin
Greene, the lawyer, such as the Law of Real Property, and the
Crown Circuit Companion. His law-terms chiefly apply to Tenure
and the transfer of Real Estate, such as fee-simple, reversion, remainder,
forfeiture, fine, and recovery, double voucher, fee-farms entail, capable
of inheriting, &c. According to the will of her father, Mary Arden
was to receive all his land in Wilmecote called Ashbies, together with the
crops it produced. Then it is noticeable that in the motto chosen
for the Shakspeare Coat-of-Arms he asserts a claim, Non sans droict,
not without right; which corresponds in character to the assertive motto
of his first poem.
In the summer of 1575, when Shakspeare was eleven years old,
there were brave doings and princely pageants at Kenilworth, where the
Earl of Leicester gave royal entertainment to Queen Elizabeth. The
superb affair was kept up for eighteen days, and as a whet to the
sight-seeing, there were three hundred and twenty hogsheads of beer drunk
on that occasion. Was the boy Shakspeare present at those princely
pleasures of Kenilworth? I think he was; and a vision of it comes
over his memory in a certain Midsummer Night's Dream! That is
his dramatic way of telling us he was there. When our Shakspeare was
sixteen years of age, there was a William Shakspeare drowned at Stratford
in the river Avon. Now this fact offers a rare chance for the anti-Shakspeareans.
They should complete their case by coming forward boldly and swearing that
that was our William Shakspeare who was drowned, and there was an end of
him once for all. For he could not be the author of his own works if
he was drowned in 1580 at the early age of sixteen years. Nothing
short of proving some such alibi can ever establish their theory, and I
make them a present of this suggestion. Never will they get such
There has been a little too much anxiety perhaps to invest
our Shakspeare's youth with the halo of bourgeois respectability.
Some have even doubted or denied the tradition of his poaching, which he
himself has warranted true in the opening scene of the Merry Wives of
Windsor, where he makes fun of the Lucy coat of arms and the
significance of the name. "The dozen white louses do become an old
coat well. It is a familiar beast to man, and signifies love."
Poaching has done good service in its time, if only in sending many a
stout fellow to help found our other Englands on the southern side of the
world. It is more than likely that it may have sent Shakspeare to
found new empires on the stage.
One feels that there is a considerable basis of
truth in the traditions which have reached us, telling that the young
Shakspeare was somewhat wild, and joined with other young fellows, and let
his spirits overflow at times in their boisterous country way. Hence
we hear of the drinking bouts and poaching freaks. We may depend on
it there was nothing prim and priggish about Willie Shakspeare; for
"Willie" he would be to his youthful companions as well as to his
"play-fellows" of later days! Not that there was any great harm in
his frolics, only they may have been too expensive for the father's
position. He may not have been able to afford what the youth
was spending with a lavish hand. Possibly he kept the worst as long
as he could from his son's knowledge. Suddenly there came a change.
The young man looked on life with more serious eyes. He would see
his father, as it were, coming down the hill, beaten and broken spirited,
as he was mounting full of hope and exulting vigour. He would have
sad thoughts, such as gradually steadied the wild spirits within him, and
make resolves that we know he fulfilled as soon as possible in after-life.
Gentle Willie would not be without self-reproach if he was in the least a
cause of his father's declining fortunes. This thought we may
surmise was one of the strongest incentives to that prudence which became
proverbial in after years; and one of the quickest feelings working within
him, as he strove so strenuously to make his father a gentleman, was that
he had once helped to make him poor. It may be a worthless fancy,
but I cannot help thinking that our Poet's great thrift and his undoubted
grip in money matters had such an unselfish awakenment.
At eighteen years of age our William Shakspeare was married
to Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a yeoman at Shottery (or at Temple
We read in the Hebrew Mythos that Eve was formed from one of
the ribs of Adam, which was taken from him during a deep sleep. In
like manner other Eves have been created by the hand of love during a deep
sleep of the soul, and the waking has not been always so delightful as
that of Adam, who, according to the poet's fancy, found his wife waiting
for him in Eden with all her comeliness fresh from the Creator's hand.
"Grace in her steps and heaven in her eye;
In all her gestures dignity and love."
has been rather more like Titania's when the glamour was gone from her
eyes. And it has been surmised that Shakspeare's was a case of this
kind—that he threw the auroral hues of his dawning imagination round Anne
Hathaway, and married before he knew where he was. There is nothing
known, however, to give colour to this theory, which is derived from
reading the Sonnets as personal to Shakspeare himself. Certainly,
she was some eight years older than he was, and he has in his works left a
warning against others going and doing as he did—so at least the critics
say; more especially Mr. Grant White, who grows positively vixenish
against poor Anne Hathaway for marrying Will Shakspeare. If Mr.
White could have had his way, Shakspeare would never have had his; and if
Mr. White had had his Will, poor Anne certainly would not have got hers!
He thinks the second-best bed too good for her. He contends that if
Shakspeare had loved and honoured his wife, he would not have written
those passages, which must have been "gall and wormwood to his soul."
That is good argument then that he did love her, and that they were not
quite so bitter to him. Surely it is the more mean and unmanly to
suppose that he wrote them because he did not love and honour his
wife! It is sad indeed to learn that Anne Hathaway brought the Poet
to such "sorrow and shame," as Mr. White says is frequently expressed in
the Plays and the Sonnets. This Critic takes the matter of
Anne's age so much to heart, that one would be glad to suggest any source
of consolation. Possibly Mrs. William Shakspeare may have been one
of those fine healthy Englishwomen—I have a sovereign sample in my mind's
eye now—in whose presence we never think of age or reckon years; whose
tender spring is followed by a long and glorious summer, an autumn
fruitful and golden. These do not attain their perfection in April;
they ripen longer and hoard up a maturer fragrance for the fall o' the
year, a mellower sweetness for the winter, and about mid-season they often
pause, wearing the bud, flower, and fruit of human beauty all at once.
Possibly her ripened perfections or fuller flower might be a ground of
equality in such a pair. Possibly the lusty Shakspeare was a man of
larger growth than usual, maturer for his years than most young men, and a
mate for any woman considerably older than himself!
But there really is no reason to suppose he ran away from his
home because he disliked his wife, or that he was not fond of her.
She is said to have been eminently beautiful, and she was fond of him;
according to tradition, she begged to be laid in the same grave with him.
Some of the autobiographists have hunted for Shrews in the early Plays.
But to what end, when in the same play the sweet character of Luciana is
present to equate with her shrewish sister?
At one time Shakspeare writes:—
"Prosperity's the very bond of love,
Whose fresh complexion and whose heart together
another he affirms that
"Love is not love,
Which alters when it alteration finds.
Love's not Time's fool, though, rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom."
are spoken in character; they are strictly in keeping and dramatically
true in their place, but it would be idle to apply either to Shakspeare as
a test of his own personality. For a man who was miserably married
he is a somewhat enthusiastic advocate for early marriage in his first
Sonnets, and in his very early Play of Love's Labour's Lost.
But if we were to found upon a character or a text or two we should soon
have as many interpretations of Shakspeare as there are contending sects
of Christians. I rather think we shall get nearer to young Will
Shakspeare and Anne Hathaway in the Lover's Complaint than in the
Sonnets. In this poem the Poet is audibly making fun of their own
early troubles. There is a pleasant exaggeration throughout, both in
his description of her and her description of him. The humour is
very pawky. Some people, he suggests, might have thought her old in
her ancient large straw-bonnet, or hat. But he assures us, Time had
not cut down all that youth began, nor had youth quite left her; some of
her beauty yet peeped through the lattice of age! The lady is
anxious for us to think that she is old in sorrow, not in years. The
description of him is pointed by the author with the most provoking
slyness, and used in her defence for the loss of her "White Stole."
There is the subtle Shakspearean smile at human nature's frailties in the
suggestion of Stanza 23, that in like circumstances we seldom let the
by-past perils of others stand in our future way.
Whatsoever the object of this poem, and to whomsoever it was written, we
have here the most life-like portrait of Shakspeare extant, drawn by
himself under the freest, happiest condition for insuring a true
likeness—that is, whilst humorously pretending to look at himself through
the eyes of Anne Hathaway, under circumstances the most sentimental.
A more perfect portrait was never finished. The frolic life looks
out of the eyes, the red is ripe on the cheek, the maiden manhood soft on
the chin, the breath moist on the lip that has the glow of the garnet, the
bonny smile that "gilded his deceit" so bewitchingly. He is—
"One by Nature's outwards so commended,
That maiden eyes stack over all his face;
Love lacked a dwelling and made him her place,
And when in his fair parts she did abide,
She was new-lodged and newly Deified.
"His browny locks did hang in crooked curls,
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcel burls;
Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind,
For on his visage was in little drawn,
What largeness thinks in paradise was sawn.
"Small show of man was yet upon his chin;
His phœnix-down began but to appear,
Like unshorn velvet, on that termless skin,
Whose bare out-bragged the web it seemed to wear,
Yet showed his visage by that cost more dear;
And nice affection wavering, stood in doubt,
If best were as it was, or best without."
The very hair,
in shape and hue, that Shakspeare must have had when young, to judge by
the bust and the description of it as left, coloured from life! The
inner man, too, was beauteous as the outer.
"His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was and thereof free."
Gentle he was
until greatly moved, and then his spirit was a storm personified—but only
such a storm
"As oft twixt May and April is to see,
When winds breathe sweet, unruly though they be."
universally beloved, and what a winning tongue he had!—
"So on the tip of his subduing tongue,
All kinds of arguments and questions deep,
All replication prompt and reason strong,
For his advantage still did wake and sleep,
To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep."
And he was such
an actor too!—
"He had the dialect and different skill,
Catching all passions in his craft at will;
In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to Cautills, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or swooning paleness; and he takes and leaves,
In either's aptness, as it best deceives,
To blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows."
And to think
"What a hell of witchcraft lay
In the small orb of one particular tear,"
when wept by
him! Poor Anne! No marvel that
"My woeful self—
What with his Art in Youth, and Youth in art—
Threw my affections in his charmèd power;
Reserved the stalk, and gave him all the flower." 
We learn by the 16th Stanza that he was also a capital rider; much admired
when he followed the bounds across country with a daring dash, or came
cantering over to Shottery with a lover's sideling grace.
Who can doubt that this is "Will. Shakspeare," the handsome
young fellow of splendid capacity, so shaped and graced by nature as to
innocently play the very devil with the hearts of the Warwickshire lasses?
The poem is founded on a circumstance that preceded the marriage of the
Poet and Anne Hathaway; the "lover" being one who hath wept away a jewel
in her tears, and who is described as older than her sweetheart. His
own gifts and graces are purposely made the most of in humouring the
necessities of poor Anne's case—the helplessness of his own. These
things which she points to in extenuation also serve him for excuse, as if
he said, "being so handsome and so clever, how can I help being so beloved
and run after? You see, it is not my fault!" This smiling mood
has given free play to his pencil, and the poem brings us nearer to the
radiant personal humour of the man than all his Plays, especially that
story of the Nun—
His "parts had power to charm a sacred Nun"—
a lady whose
beauty made the young nobles of the Court dote on her, who was wooed by
the loftiest in the land, but kept them all at a distance, and retired
into a nunnery, to "spend her living in eternal love." Yet, pardon
him for telling it; he confesses the fact with an im-"pudency so
rosy!" No sooner had she set eyes on him, by accident, than she too
fell in love. In a moment had "religious love put out religion's
eye." I think this a glorious outbreak of his spirit of fun!
If I am right then in my conjecture that "gentle Willie" was
the beguiling lover of this forlorn lady of the "Complaint," we shall find
a remark of his to the point on which I have touched. In reply to
some of the charges brought against him, he says,
"All my offences that abroad you see,
Are errors of the blood; none of the mind."
Another supposition obtains that he left Stratford on account of his
propensities for deer-stealing. I can only say, if he did taste Sir
Thomas Lucy's venison, I hope he liked it. There has been enough
talk about it. And I trust that
"Finer or fatter,
Ne'er ranged in a park, or smoked in a platter."
But he did not need Sir Thomas Lucy's deer to drive him forth into the
world in search of a living. His own dear had just presented him
with a brace of twins. And at this hint of his "better half," he no
doubt thought it was quite time to look out for better quarters. He
may have remarked on this overproduction, "Anne hath a way I like not."
And then they said he did not like Anne Hathaway. The stories about
his being a link boy, and holding horses at the theatre door, are foolish
on the face of them. He was not a boy when he first went to London,
but a man of twenty-one, and most likely a fine lusty fellow.
In all probability our Poet went to London to be a player.
He must have been a born actor; a dramatist, in that shape, before he
became one in writing. This was the constitution of his nature; the
very mould of his mind. The strongest proof to me that the
Lover's Lament is personal to Shakspeare, is the description of his
exquisite art and abundant subtlety as an actor. His tendency and
inclination, if not his capability as such, must have been known to some
of his fellow-townsmen, and he would easily secure a good introduction to
the Blackfriars theatre, from some player who had visited Stratford.
Or he may have been the servitor of a townsman of his own, and entered as
a kind of theatrical apprentice. Having obtained his admission to
the theatre, we lose sight of him for four years. He began as a
Player, and not as a poetizer, or we should have heard more about him
personally. As a Player, he was just the man to feel supremely happy
in making a living, and something over, by work he loved to do; just the
man of business to felicitate himself on the good fortune that enabled him
to be the Player and Playwright both, which doubled his chance for making
the most of both arts of which he was a master. A false reading of
the Sonnets has left a thick film over the eyes of many who might
otherwise have had a clear and clean conception of his character. It
has discoloured and distempered their vision for life.
It is from a false view of the Sonnets that it has been
supposed he lived his tragedies before he wrote them. It is in
natures of the Byronic kind that the amount of force heaving below images
itself permanently above in a mountain of visible personality.
Shakspeare's truer image would be the ocean that can mould mountains into
shape, yet keep its own level; and grow clear and calm as ever, with all
heaven smiling in its depths, after the wildest storm, the most
His was not one of your "suffering souls." These are
wrung and pinched, gnarled and knotted into a more emphatic form of
personality than he wears for us. He could not sing about himself in
a miserable mood. He was not one of the subjective brood of poets,
who find their inspiration in such a source. Unlike Byron, who wrote
most eloquently about himself, largeness of sympathy with others, rather
than intensity of sympathy with self, was Shakspeare's nobler poetic
motive! His soul was not self-reflecting. He was not a good
listener to self. To adapt the words of Montaigne, he could not "put
his ear close by himself, and hold his breath to listen." This is
provable by means of his Poems and Plays, and I have now demonstrated
how the same man wrote the Sonnets. He could keep a calm
"sough"; convert his surplus steam into force; consume his own smoke, make
his devil laugh and draw for him. He gathered all the sunshine he
could and ripened on it, and his spirit enlarged and mellowed in content.
HE was happy whether the marriage was so or not.
This, however, we may safely infer; his circumstances were
not very flourishing at first, or we should hardly hear of his father
being in prison for debt, where we find him in 1587, when Shakspeare had
been in London two years. His strong sense of family pride would
have prevented such a thing if possible. We hear of him again in
1589, when he has been four years in London, and, if apocryphally, it must
be near the mark.
Mr. Browning tells us there are two points in the adventure
of the diver—
"One—when, a Beggar, he prepares to plunge!
One—when, a Prince, he rises with his pearl!"
Our Poet had
now made his plunge, and emerged into daylight once more. If we
could have asked him what he had grasped in the gloom, he might probably
have told us a handful of mud, having experienced the worst of his
theatrical life. He had become a player and a playwright for the
Blackfriars theatre. But he had also found his pearl. They had
set him to vamp up old plays, put flesh on skeletons, and adapt new ones;
and he had discovered that he also could make as well as mend.
During this time he had been working, invisible to us, at the foundations
of his future fame; like the trees and plants in the night-time he had
been clutching his rootage out of sight. There was nothing sudden in
his rise, he did not attain the height per saltum, but by climbing
that was gradual and persistent. He was an indefatigable worker from
first to last, and had the infinite capacity for taking pains, which great
genius implies, as well as the "right happy and copious industry"
described by Webster. Shakspeare was no spontaneous generation of
nature or ready-made result. He had to be built up as well as born.
He had to build himself up by catching hold, as the ape developed hands.
He caught hold of everything that would serve, and had the force to mount
two steps at a time.
In reply to those who are advocates for his having had a
period of sturm und drang, nothing can be more instructive than to
note the masterly ease and divine good-humour with which he mimics and
mocks the affectations of the time in his early drama of Love's
Labour's Lost, and typically plays off the country mother-wit against
the current artificialities of the courtiers. Note also the symptoms
shown in an early play like the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the
gentlemanly quietude and perfect ease which give the grace to good bearing
and manners. The young man Shakspeare is "all there," but with no
strain of effort to appear more than nature warrants for the time being.
He does not try to attract notice by being loud; has no tiptoeing to look
taller. He is a master thus far. His work culminates according
to its range, and he has the happiness of present attainment. The
rest is left to future growth. All in good time, he seems to say
with his pleasant smile.
His first rising into recognition is sun-like, with the mists
about him; the mists of malice formed by the breath of envy. As
Chaucer has it—
"The sun looks ruddy and brode
Through the misty vapours of morrowning,
And the dew as silver shining
Upon the green and sotè grass!"
writers for the stage are jealous and disgusted that a mere player, a
factotum for the theatre, should enter the arena with "college pens"
and gowned classical scholars. But for these mists, and for the
visible blinking of the little lights at the glory of a great sunrise, we
should not know when or where the new orb was first visible on the
These personalities serve for ever to identify Shakspeare in
person as the writer of the Plays, who was known as such by all his
contemporaries, whether enemies or friends.
The earliest of all allusions to Shakspeare as a Playwright
is probably made by Greene in his Perimedes, 1588, when he girds at
some novice who tickles the public with self-love, and who is
described as one that sets the fag-end of scholarship in an English
blank verse. This might be aimed at Marlowe so far as the blank
verse goes. But Marlowe was a Master of Arts, and he belonged at the
time to the Greene clique. Besides which, the "end of scholarship,"
the tailend or leavings, points to the man of a "little country grammar
knowledge" who was jibed at by Nash in a passage already quoted (p.
50). Again, in his epistle prefixed to Greene's Menaphon,
Nash also speaks of those "who think to outbrave better pens with the
swelling bombast of blank verse." Later, in 1592, Greene says the
new man "supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as
the best of you; and being an absolute JONANNES
FAC-TOTUM, is in his own conceit the only Shakscene in a country."
Thus we have the blank verse of Shakspeare aimed at thrice over by his
opponents. It was this new power manifested in blank verse that
constituted the disturbing element in the minds of Nash and Greene.
They recognized the strength of that in which they were the weakest.
It is evident from these references to Shakspeare that he had
a period of blank verse preceding the rhyming Plays. He must have
done considerable work before he wrote original dramas. This work
was applied to the English Chronicles, some of those which had already
been turned into Plays. In doing this early work our Poet wrought in
conscious rivalry with Marlowe, who was his one great successful
competitor at the opposition theatre. In Marlowe's rude resounding
work he got a glimpse of the freedom and force of blank verse. In
this way we may assume that Titus Andronicus was retouched, and so
became mixed up with Shakspeare's early Plays.
In his Pierce Pennilesse Nash admits that it would
have delighted brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after
two hundred years in the tomb, he should triumph again upon the stage
before ten thousand spectators (at several times), as Nash says, he having
counted the houses! This resurrection was the result of Shakspeare's
infusion of his new spirit into the old bones of the history.
Greene points to Shakspeare as the re-writer of the third
part of Henry VI., when he quotes from that play to identify him by
means of the line which he parodies for the purpose. Shakspeare had
written, "O Tiger's heart wrapt in a ,woman's hide." This is echoed
by Greene in his "Tiger's heart wrapt, in a Player's hide!" who
certainly aimed at Shakspeare as the writer of the line. And as
Shakspeare is charged with filching their feathers, that points to the
historic Plays, which he had partly re-written, such as the second and
third parts of Henry VI., founded on the two old histories that
were pre-extant. Meanwhile he turns from the Chronicles to try his
hand at more literary and poetical Plays, like the Errors and
Love's Labour's Lost. The Errors is undoubtedly an early
Play (about 1590), and it contains much easy-going, graceful blank-verse.
It is not great for Shakspeare, but must have been amazing enough to
Greene as the production of a professed Player, who supposed he was able
to "bombast, out a blank verse" with any of them! And here
once more we can identify Greene identifying Shakspeare by making use of
his imagery for the purpose. Antipholus of Ephesus says—
"Well, I'll break in; Go, borrow me a crow."
"A crow without a feather; Master, mean you so?
For a fish without a fin, there's a fowl without a feather:
If a crow help us in, sirrah, we'll pluck a crow together."
Greene takes up the "Crow without a feather," and applies the image
to the player, whom he calls "an upstart crow beautified in our
Shakspeare did not remain so silent under these attacks as is
commonly assumed. To Greene's description of him as a crow
"beautified in our feathers," with his "Tiger's heart wrapped in a
player's hide!" Shakspeare mockingly retorts—
"Seems he a dove, (gentle Willie!) his feathers are
For he's disposèd as the hateful raven (or upstart crow).
Is he a lamb? his skin is surely lent him,
For he's inclinèd as the ravenous wolves."
The false feathers are again referred to in Hamlet—"Would not this,
Sir, and a forest of feathers (if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk (i.e.
break faith) with me), with two Provençal roses on my razed shoes,
get me a fellowship in a cry of Players?" "That's an ill phrase, a
vile phrase; 'beautified' is a vile phrase," he says in the same play;
and "Beautified in our feathers" was Greene's phrase.
Shakspeare, having been charged with purloining the feathers of those who
were learned, makes a reference to this in the Sonnet already quoted,
where he tells Southampton that his patronage has "added feathers to the
Learned's wing!" That is, the patron and friend has given back the
feathers which he, the Poet, had been charged with stealing from them, and
has thus restored far more than his Poet borrowed. Plainly enough
this indicates the way in which Shakspeare took his place in the
Blackfriars company, and also contains a smiling allusion to Greene's
charge as to the manner of feathering his nest there.
There is more, however, in Hamlet's words than this making
fun of the "feathers"; something covertly concealed under the rose
that no one has yet espied. If we look intently we shall see the
snake stir beneath the flowers; a subtle snake of irony with the most
wicked glitter in its eye!
Reference is frequently made by the Elizabethan dramatists to
the devil hiding his cloven hoof under a rose stuck on the shoe.
Webster alludes to it in his White Devil—
"Why 'tis the Devil!
I know him by a great rose he wears on 's shoe,
To hide his cloven foot."
And Ben Jonson
has a character, "Fitzdottrel," in The Devil is an Ass,
who has long been desirous of meeting with Satan; so long that he begins
to think there is no devil at all but what the painters have made.
On suddenly seeing "Pug" he is startled into fearing that his great wish
may be at last realized, and he exclaims—
"fore hell, my heart was at my mouth,
Till I had viewed his shoes well; for those Roses
Were big enough to hide a cloven hoof!"
assuredly glances at this legend of the devil hiding his cloven hoof under
the rose. The Poet has a double intention in making such an
allusion. On the surface it may be interpreted as pointing to the
trick played on the King and Court, by Hamlet's having so cunningly used
the players for his purpose in touching upon the matter of the
murder—thus hiding the cloven hoof in the buskin. But it goes
deeper, and means more. It is the private laugh about the "feathers"
continued. The Poet is still jesting at the consternation and
amazement which his presence and his success had created amongst his
learned rivals, and the outcry they made, as though the very devil had
broken loose in the theatre, and was hiding his cloven foot in a player's
Again, in this same play he pokes fun at Master Nash!
He has taken the identical subject treated by Marlowe and Nash in their
Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the purpose of mocking the rant and
bombast of these learned writers, the speech chosen, most probably,
being the work of Nash. "One speech in it I chiefly loved,"
says Hamlet, "'twas Æneas' tale to Dido; and thereabout of it, especially
where he speaks of Priam's slaughter." He then proceeds to outdo the
said speech, which in Dido begins—
"At which the frantic Queen leap'd on his face,
And in his eyelids hanging by the nails,
A little while prolonged her husband's life;"—
Queen" is turned into the "mobled Queen," and in both speeches poor old
Priam is struck down with the wind of Pyrrhus' sword.
It was not Shakspeare's way to get into a passion and turn
pamphleteer. Being a great dramatist, he could put all he had to say
into his Plays, or rather, as he was essentially an actor, he staged and
played his opponents in character. They soon found that this was a
fellow who could play the fool at their own expense, and make fools of
them for the public; who could exhibit them as his puppets, and pull the
strings at his pleasure for the profit of the players; set all the gods in
the gallery grinning at them by showing up their likenesses; whelming them
with his wit, deluging them with his overflowing humour, and drowning them
and their outcries in the floods of his own merriment and laughter.
In short, they discovered that they had caught a Tartar who could "take
Nash had inveighed against his monstrous ignorance in 1590
(see p. 50), and in the next play
and next year he writes—
"Oh, thou monster Ignorance, how deformed dost thou look!"
"Oh, this Learning! what a thing it is!"
mimicked by Shakspeare in his
"Oh, this Woodcock! what an Ass it is!"
After what they had said about their learning and his lack of it, he must
have meant a double entendre, or had the dual consciousness when he
wrote, "William is become a good scholar!" (1599), and the boy was being
put through his "little Latin."
A prolonged reply to Nash can be detected in Love's
Labour's Lost, a play that runs over with his ridicule of the
affectation-mongers. In this I hold the character of the little Moth
(= Mote) to be meant for Torn Nash. For these reasons, Nash was
known by the name of "Young Juvenal," and Moth is introduced as "My tender
Juvenal," and is said to be a "most acute Juvenal!" He was the
author of Pierce Pennilesse, and his Pennyworth of Wit is
glanced at when Moth tells Armado that he purchased his experience by his
"penny of observation." Costard says to him, "Your pennyworth is
good." "What's the price of this inkle?" "A penny?" "No!
I'll give you a remuneration." "An I had but one penny in the world
thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread." "Thou halfpenny purse of
wit, thou pigeon-egg of discretion." Nash had said of some one whom
he supposed had been a lawyer's clerk, and who could scarcely "Latinize
his neck-verse," that "if you intreat him fair in a frosty Morning he will
afford you whole Hamlets—I should say handfuls of tragical speeches."
This infinitesimal joke is annotated when Costard calls Moth
that "Handful of Wit! Ah, heavens! it is a most pathetical nit.
I marvel, thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so
long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus." Shakspeare
had no learning, but Costard says to Moth, "Thou hast it ad
dunghill, at thy fingers' ends." "Oh, I smell false Latin; dunghill
for unguem," Holofernes remarks, as if Shakspeare were retorting on
the Hamlets for handfuls. Moth is set to do in the play what Nash
attempted out of it, that is, to perform the part of Hercules and scotch
the snake. But it ends in failure and inextinguishable fun. "An
excellent device! If any of the audience hiss you may cry, 'Well
done, Hercules; now thou crushest the snake!"' Shakspeare gets
out his magnifying-glass to see the mote with. Here he begins to
betray his own size. He takes up Tom Nash in his hand as Gulliver
might the Liliputian, and then with a great hearty laugh he sets the mite
to play the part of Hercules in strangling the snakes, saying, "Great
Hercules is presented by this imp!" Half the fun of a play like this
depended on recognizing the originals of certain characters in real life.
Greene probably escaped being stricken by a sunstroke of Shakspeare's
humour through dying just in time, after giving his runaway knock at the
stage-door of the Shakescene's theatre.
But the most amusing of Shakspeare's personal retorts are
those relating to old John Davies of Hereford, he who wrote the epigram of
Drusus, his deere Deer-hunting. 
More than once did Davies dare to gnarr at his heels, or do
what was still worse—pat him on the back.
In 1603 he wrote of the Players—
"Players, I love ye, and your quality,
As ye are men, that pass time not abused:
And some  I love for painting, poesy,
And say fell Fortune cannot be excused,
That hath for better uses you refused:
Wit, Courage, good shape, good parts, and all good,
As long as all these goods are no worse used,
And though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood,
Yet generous ye are in mind and mood" (p. 215). 
In 1609 he printed these lines—
"Some followed her by acting all men's parts,
These on a stage she raised (in scorn) to fall:
And made them Mirrors by their acting Arts,
Wherein men saw their faults, though ne'er so small:
Yet some she guerdoned not, to their deserts;
But, other some, were but ill action all;
Who while they acted ill, ill stayed behind,
(By custom of their manners) in their mind" (p. 208). 
Also to our
English Terence, Mr. Will Shakespeare (about 1611)—
"Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,
Hadst thou not played some, kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst been a companion for a king;
And, been a king among the meaner sort.
Some others rail; but, rail as they think fit,
Thou hast no railing, but, a reigning wit:
And honesty thou sow'st, which they do reap;
So, to increase their stock which they do keep." 
I am of opinion
that Davies' Epigram on the Player as English Æsop was aimed at
"I came to English Æsop on a tide,
As he lay tired (as tired) before the play;
I came unto him in his flood of pride;
He then was king and thought I should obey.
And so I did, for with all reverence, I
As to my sovereign (though to him unknown)
Did him approach; but lo! he cast his eye,
As if therein I had presumption shown.
I like a subject (with submiss regard)
Did him salute; yet he regreeted me
But with a nod, because his speech he spared
For lords and knights that came his grace to see."
He did but mark
"my feigned fawnings with a nod!" says Davies. Thus Davies describes
Shakspeare, praises him, flatters him, calls him "Good Will"; he pities
him for being a player, and says that but for his tendency to rail at and
make game of people, more especially of kings, he might have been the
companion of a king! But he has played the fool to his own
detriment. Davies claims to know him so well in his Microcosmos!
This the Poet resents! This he replies to.
In the person of Menenius in Coriolanus Shakspeare
smites him thus—"I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that
loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber in it; said to
be something imperfect, in favouring the thirst complaint: hasty, and
tinder-like, upon too trivial motion. What I think I utter; and
spend my malice in my breath, &c. . . . If you see this in the 'Map of my
Microcosm,' follows it that I am known well enough too? What harm
can your bisson conspectuities glean out of this character, if I be known
well enough too?" Not only does Shakspeare take him by the beard to
smite him thus and give him, as Hood says, two black eyes for being blind,
but he has pluralized the old schoolmaster for the pleasure of thrashing
him double. "I cannot say your worships have delivered the matter
well, when I find the ass in compound with the major part of your
syllables, and though I must be content to bear with those that say you
are reverend grave men, yet they lie deadly that tell you you have good
faces. You know neither me, yourselves, nor anything!" Our
Poet had a double reason for his retort. He resents what Davies had
said of the stage as well as of himself and Burbage. He speaks for
the Company in general. He says in effect—"You have sat in
judgment, you ridiculous old ass, but you have not handled the matter
wisely or well. And as for the railing that we are charged with,
why, our very priests must become mockers if they shall encounter such
ridiculous subjects as you are. When you speak best unto the purpose
it is not worth the wagging of your beard."
It will not be easy to detect any dramatic
motive in these replies of Menenius; there was no sufficient cause in
the words of the
Tribunes: they had not drawn the map of his Microcosm; had not
characterized him at all, but merely remarked, "you are well enough
known too!" Neither was there any hint in Plutarch. No one can, I think,
compare what Davies wrote of our Poet in his three different
poems with this outburst of Menenius' without seeing that the Poet has
expressed the personal annoyance of himself and fellows. We may, perhaps,
take it as a slight additional indication of Shakspeare's
having John Davies in mind that nearly the next words spoken by Menenius
on hearing that Coriolanus is returning home are, "Take
my cap, Jupiter, and I thank thee;" and poor John had, in lines already
quoted, greeted Southampton on his release from the
Tower, with the words, "Southampton, up thy cap to heaven fling!" In his
Paper's Complaint, which is full of tortured conceits, chiefly
personal to himself, Davies says of Shakspeare—
"Another (ah, Lord help me!) vilifies
With art of love, and how to subtilize,
Making lewd Venus, with eternal lines,
To tie Adonis to her
Fine whit is shed therein, but finer 'twere
If not attired in such baudy
This is immediately followed by allusions to the paper war between Nash
and Harvey, and to the writings of Greene.
Again he writes in his Scourge of Folly—
"And oh, that ever any should record
And Chronicle the Sedges of a Lord!"
Not sieges of castles and towns, he explains, but sedges of a vile kind. This Chronicle containing the "Sedges of a Lord" is
obviously the Taming of the Shrew, with its induction in which "A Lord" is
the chief character, and his jest at the expense of
Christopher Sly is the low pastime called by Davies the "Sedges of a
Lord." This is sufficient to identify Davies hitting at and replying to Shakspeare. And it is in this same poem he complains that he has suffered a
great permanent injury from some playwright who has
publicly put him to confusion and shame, and he regrets that
"Poets, if they last, can hurt with ease
(Incurably) their foes which
Again, he says, "a great torment in the life to come is due to those that
can and will take such immortal revenge for any mortal
injury." He tells us that he penned his Scourge of Folly because he had
been "disgraced with fell
disasters." He does not here allude to Ben Jonson's Time Vindicated, for
is dated 1623, the Scourge of Folly appearing in 1611. It has been
absurdly suggested that Davies is complaining of Shakspeare's
having burlesqued him in
his Sonnets, as the rival poet, whom I show to be Marlowe. But it is in a
Chronicle, i.e. a play, in which his injuries were made historical.
the Players the "Chronicles" of the time. "This sport well carried shall
Chronicled,"—made a play of—says Helena to Hermia. Besides, this
Chronicler is one who has "Chronicled the Sedges of a Lord,"
and consequently he is the
author of the Taming of the Shrew. Moreover, he is one who "confounds
grave matters of State" with "plays of puppets," and he
has made a puppet of poor John! Davies cries—
That e'er this dotard made me such an ass,
. . .
. and that in such a thing
call a Chronicle, so on me bring
A world of shame. A shame upon them all
That make mine injuries
To wear out time; that ever, without end,
My shame may last, without some one it mend.
And if a senseless creature,
as I am,
And so am made by those whom thus I blame,
My judgment give, from those
that know it well,
His notes for art and judgment doth
Well fare thee, man of art, and world of wit,
That by supremest
mercy livest yet!" 
This sounds very like the maundering of one of Shakspeare's Dogberry-kind
of characters, but there is important matter in it, as we
Davies' position was an uneasy one; he tries to balance himself first on
one leg, then on the other. He wants to say something
cutting about Shakspeare
all the while, and so the Players are "Nature's zanies; Fortune's spite;" and
"railers" against the State. On the other hand, Shakspeare has been
graced by Royalty, and is an intimate friend of the young Earl
of Pembroke, for whose amusement probably Davies had been made such game
of, and who was pestered
continually by Davies' inflated fatuous effusions. And so, in spite
of his attacks, he protests his love for the poets—
"Yea, those I love, that in too earnest game
(A little spleen), did me no
The fact remains that he has been made an ass of in a stage-play obviously
by Shakspeare, whom he refers to as the
"Man of art, and world of wit,
That by supremest mercy livest yet."
My explanation of this is, that John Davies had been pilloried, staged,
propertied, and made the most amazing ass of in the character
of Malvolio, in the play of Twefth Night—"For Monsieur Malvolio, let me
alone with him: if I
do not gull him into a nayword, and make him a common recreation,
do not think
I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed." Shakspeare did not bite his
there for nothing! We are "railers" and "zanies," are we? "I
protest," says Malvolio, "I take these wise men that crow so at
these set kind of fools, no
better than the fools' zanies!" No envious allusion, let us hope, on
the Poet's noble patrons who "spent their time in seeing plays." To be
Davies' lines happened to be charged with that feeling. And what a blithe-spirited, sweet-blooded reply this draws from the happy,
cordial heart of the man himself—"O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio,
and taste with a distempered
appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of a free disposition, is to take
things for birdbolts that you deem cannon bullets. There is no slander in
an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no
railing in a known discreet
man, though he do nothing but reprove." I will only remark here that the
fool in the play cannot be the "known discreet man,"
but we may divine who was.
John Davies was a schoolmaster. He published a book named the Writing-master. He was a wonderful caligraphist. Nicholas Deeble calls him "thrice-famoused
for rarity." He challenged all England to
contest the palm for penmanship, and one of his admirers challenged the
whole world on his behalf. He appears to have taught one
half the nobility to write, and on the strength
of that to have solicited the other half to read his writings. Next,
Davies was the great master of writing on parchment, i.e. sheepskin;
the "niggardly, rascally sheepbiter;" the great professor of caligraphy,—
"I think we do know the sweet Roman hand."
We saw how, with the air of a connoisseur, he studied the shape of my
lady's letters. "These be her very C's, her U's, and her T"s;
and thus makes she her great P's." "Her C's, her U's, and her T's;
WHY THAT?" asks Sir Andrew.
"Ah, mocker, that's the dog's" profession. Then, he "looks like a
keeps a school i' the church." No doubt of it: he was a schoolmaster; and
he puts himself into the trick of singularity, as we
know John Davies did.
Davies was a Puritan. As such he made his feeble, foolish attacks on the
Players, and got stripped and whipped for his pains. "But, dost thou think
because thou art virtuous there shall he no more cakes and ale?" "Marry,
sometimes he is a kind of Puritan! The devil a Puritan that he is, or
anything constantly but a time-pleaser—an affectioned ass, that
cons state without book and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded
of himself, so crammed as he thinks with excellences, that
it is his ground of faith that all that look on him
love." Only those who know Davies from his writings, and have watched him
as he stands before the mirror of himself in his
dedications and other maunderings, "Practising behaviour to his own
shadow," Malvolio-like, can
judge how true the delineation is. Hero we have the "affectioned ass"
Davies says the dotard, Malvolio, had made of him. Then Davies complains
that the chronicler, or playwright, had spotted him
with a "medley of motley
livery." Nothing could more surely characterize the dress in which the
goose got his dressing—yellow-stockinged, and cross-gartered
was fooled, as threatened, "black and blue." Thus was Davies made the
"most notorious geck and gull that e'er invention played on;" thus the
With bloodless stroke"
was driven home; "the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal"; and if he was not phlebotomized by the stroke, he was
Bottom-ized all over; his ass-hood made permanent for ever.
Why should Shakspeare have done this? He will
"Myself and Toby
Set this device against Malvolio here,
Upon some stubborn and uncourteous parts
We had conceived against him.
How with a sportful malice it was followed,
May rather pluck on laughter
If that the injuries be justly weighed
That have on both sides past."
But how do the dates tally? I know of no book published by Davies
with a date previous to the year 1602—Wit's Pilgrimage having no
date—in which year,
according to Manningham's Diary, Twelfth Night was performed. But, as Mr. Halliwell has said, Davies' poems may, in either case,
have been written year's before publication; some of his Epigrams appeared
with Marlowe's translation of Ovid's Elegies in 1596-7; and
we know that Davies bewails the difficulty he had in getting his poems
printed. The Scourge of Folly consists of various
written during many years. Davies was educated at Oxford, and was a
of the Pembroke family. He wrote a poem on the death of Herbert's father,
and says, "My friend did die, and so would God might I." This brings him
very near to Herbert in the only accountable way, and
explains the familiarity
of Davies' early dedications. As tutor, with Puritan pretensions, he would
the young Earl against Shakspeare and the Players, for he was unboundedly
liberal with his advice. In this way many things might come to
Shakspeare's eyes and ears long before they were made public,
for we know with what
"favour" Herbert "prosecuted" our Poet. The young lord could not help
making fun of his own absurd, "peculiar John," as
Davies signed himself when "double-bound to W.," and that in concert with
Shakspeare, and then be generous enough to help him to
get his pitiable endeavours to appear witty and
wise shown up in print as fun-provoking follies. Shakspeare knew better
than we do what Davies may have written and said previous
to 1602, but I have quoted enough, I think, from Davies for him to stand
self-identified as Malvolio.
We are told (Centurie of Prayse, p. 49) that Dr. Nicholson thinks "there
is no character in Shakspeare which, in various ways, so well
stands for Jonson" as Malvolio. But Ben was no Puritan. He writes in
Eastward Hoe—"Your only smooth skin to make vellum is your
Puritan's skin; they be the smoothest
and sleekest knaves in a country." And surely Ben was no sworn enemy to
cakes and ale, or even canary wine! Ben had too robust and assertive a
esteem to become the foolish gull of his own vanity. Ben was a lusty
asserter of himself rather than a self-worshipper. He
boasted mostly of his work. His
was not the Malvolian fatuity of conceit. He did not simper simiously.
Malvolio is a Puritan and a pious prig at that. He is virulently virtuous,
he is a zealous foe to all good fellowship, and laughing and "daffing." The
happiness of others makes his bile rise bitter in the mouth. What possible
likeness to Malvolio can any one see in the man
who lavished his laudation so abundantly upon his contemporaries, that
forty may be seen feeding as one upon his over-plenteous
praise of them? Prythee, think no more of that!
I still hold to my opinion, expressed in
1866, that we owe to Gabriel
Harvey the earliest worthy word in recognition of Shakspeare's dawning
genius. In September 1592 Gabriel Harvey took up the cudgels on
behalf of himself and his family who had been attacked and outrageously
abused by the Greene "set," and replied to "Woeful Greene and beggarly
Pierce Pennilesse, as it were a Grasshopper and a Cricket, two pretty
Musicians but silly creatures; the Grasshopper imaged would be nothing
less than a Green Dragon, and the Cricket malcontented the only Unicorn of
the Muses." The letters are "especially touching parties abused
by Robert Greene—incidentally of divers excellent persons, and some
matters of note." In the third of these we have what I judge to
be the most appreciative of all contemporary notices of Shakspeare: the
only intimation that any one then living had caught the splendid sparkle
of the jewel that was yet to "lighten all the isle." Harvey is
partly pleading, partly expostulating with Nash. I speak, he says,
to a Poet, but "good sweet orator, BE a divine
Poet indeed." He urges him to employ his golden talent to honour
virtue and valour with "heroical cantos," as "noble Sir Philip Sidney and
gentle Maister Spenser have done, with immortal fame." He is
pleading for more nature in poetry. "Right Artificiality," he urges,
"is not mad-brained, or ridiculous, or absurd, or blasphemous, or
monstrous; but deep-conceited, but pleasurable, but delicate, but
exquisite, but gracious, but admirable." He points out what he
considers the finest models, the truest poetry of the past, and, turning
to the Elizabethan time, he names some dear lovers of the Muses whom he
admires and cordially recommends, making mention of Spenser, Watson,
Daniel, Nash and others. These he thanks affectionately for their
studious endeavours to polish and enrich their native tongue. He tells the
poets of the day that he appreciates their elegant fancy, their excellent
wit, their classical learning, their efforts to snatch a grace from the
antique, but he has discovered the bird of a new dawn, with a burst of
music fresh from the heart of Nature, and its prelusive warblings have
made his spirits dance within him. He will not call this new Poet by
name, because, were he to say what he feels, he would be suspected of
exaggeration, over-praise, or unworthy motive. But he says it is
the "sweetest and divinest Muse that ever sang in English or other
Now this cannot be either Spenser or Sidney; these he has
named. It cannot be Drayton, for it is a new man, and this is a plea
for a new Poet, one of those whom Greene has abused. The writer is
bespeaking the attention of Poets and Critics, more especially of Thomas
Nash, to the writings of this new Poet, who is not Nash himself, and he
pleads with those who flatter themselves on being learned not to sneer at
or neglect this
"...fine handiwork of Nature and excellenter Art combined. Gentle
minds and flourishing wits were infinitely to blame if they should not
also, for curious imitation, propose unto themselves such fair types of
refined and engraced eloquence. The right novice of pregnant and
aspiring conceit will not outskip any precious gem of invention, or any
beautiful flower of elocution that may richly adorn or gallantly bedeck
the trim garland of his budding style. I speak generally to every
springing wit; but more especially to a few, and at this instant
singularly to one (Nash) whom I salute with a hundred blessings, and
entreat, with as many prayers, to love them that love all good wits, and
hate none, but the Devil and his incarnate imps notoriously professed."
This is a reply to the petulance and bitterness of Greene, and his friend,
the "byting satyrist." It is addressed to Thomas Nash, who,
it must be remembered, was Shakspeare's "old sweet enemy"; about the
earliest to sneer at the player who was gradually becoming a Poet, in his
Anatomie of Absurditie, printed in 1590, two years before he was
pelted with the wild and stupid abuse of the Groat's-worth of Wit—in
which, if Nash had no hand, we have only too true a reflex of his spirit.
If Nash and Greene aimed at Shakspeare in their attacks, assuredly it is
Shakspeare whom Gabriel Harvey defends. In effect Harvey replies to
Nash, "You are infinitely to blame in the course you are pursuing with
regard to this new writer. Do not, I beseech you, wilfully blind
your eyes to so much beauty." This he does in a gentle, conciliatory
spirit, not wishing to stir up strife. "Love them that love all good
wits," he says, "and hate none."
Never did I assume or suppose that the "worst of the four"
spoken of by Harvey was meant for Shakspeare. I never inferred that
Shakspeare was the man whom Harvey did salute "with a hundred blessings
and as many prayers." I said it was Nash. Nor do I see how Dr. Ingleby
could have fallen into his error, when Harvey was so obviously addressing
Nash! But I see no need for Dr. Ingleby to throw away the child with the
water it was washed in by Mr. Simpson.  It
appears to me that Dr. Ingleby, having mixed up Nash with the new Poet,
who is only alluded to incidentally, has made a further mistake in
adopting Mr. Simpson's explanation as conclusive against Harvey's making
any reference whatever to Shakspeare.
It is but Mr. Simpson's inference that this great rising Poet
was one of the Harveys, because Gabriel only mentions the family of four,
when limiting or directing his reply to the one particular book, Greene's
Quip for an Upstart Courtier. Harvey, however, in his Letters
was writing "especially touching parties abused by Robert Greene,
incidentally of divers excellent persons, and some matters of note."
And this advertisement covers the whole ground necessary to include
Shakspeare, who had been badly abused by Greene and Nash, and therefore is
not to be excluded from Harvey's defence, if he does still more expressly
champion the four persons, who were his father and the three Harvey
brothers. Taking the Harvey family to be those who were
especially abused by Greene, there yet remain the "divers excellent
persons" who are alluded to incidentally; and my contention still is, that
Shakspeare is one, and the chief one, of these persons incidentally
alluded to. He uses the very language of Chettle, "Myself have seen
his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he
possesses." There is no collision between Nash as the person saluted
with the "hundred blessings," and Shakspeare as the "sweetest and divinest
Muse that ever sang in English." These latter words were not meant
for Nash, they do not go with the others, but have to be care fully
distinguished from them. Nash did not take them to himself—he knew
that he was not the great unnamed when he wrote in Strange News—"To
make me a small seeming amends for the injuries thou hast done me, thou
reckonest me up amongst the dear loves and professed sons of the Muses,
Edmund Spenser, A. Fraunce T. Watson S. Daniel. With a hundred
blessings and many prayers thou intreatest me to love thee. Content
thyself; I will not."
Harvey was "only referring to the Quip," says
Mr. Simpson. But that is a gross mistake. He is also replying
to Beggarly Pierce Pennilesse, who had made at least two attacks on
Shakspeare before 1592. I still maintain that the "Sweetest and
divinest Muse that ever sang in English," which is left nameless by
Harvey, was that of Shakspeare, the then known author of the Comedy of
Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, and the Two Gentlemen of
Verona—the man abused by Nash and Greene,—and not one of the brothers
Harvey. Possibly Harvey was acquainted with the Venus and Adonis,
then forthcoming, and with the early Sonnets, then in MS., written for the
young Earl of Southampton whom the Doctor knew, and whose patronage of
Shakspeare would undoubtedly weigh with Harvey.
Thus to Harvey belongs the honour of first proclaiming the
sunrise. Others may have perceived the orient colours, but this
writer first said it was so, and cried aloud the new dawn in English
Poetry—had the intuition necessary for seeing that the nature of
Shakspeare's work was incomparably higher than all the Art of the
Classical School, and uttered his feeling with a forthright, frank
honesty, in a strain so lofty, that it found no echo in that age until Ben
Jonson gave the rebound in his noble lines to Shakspeare's memory.
But Jonson then stood in the after-glow that followed the sunset.
Harvey penned his eulogy in the light of the early sunrise. He
pointed out the first springing beams, and called upon all who were true
worshippers of the sacred fire. He alone dared to speak such a lusty
panegyric of the new Poet's natural graces, and exalt his art above that
of his most learned rivals with their fantastic conceits, their euphuistic
follies, and "Aretinish mountains of huge exaggeration." He alone
called upon those who were decrying Shakspeare so coarsely, to study his
works; this he did in words which have the heart-warmth of personal
friendship trying to make friends for a friend out of the bitterest
enemies: words which were snarled at viciously by Nash.
This early recognition of Shakspeare arises out
of the old quarrel of Learning versus the natural brain, which
appears and reappears in all we hear of Shakspeare's literary life.
In this quarrel Nash made the first onset, continued the battle along with
the Greene clique, until awed into silence by the majestic rise and
dilation of Shakspeare's genius, or forced to lay his hand on his mouth
because, as Chettle confessed, "divers of worship have reported his
uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty and his facetious grace
in writing, that approves his Art." And because some influence had
been brought to bear on Nash to make him so quickly follow the Groat's-worth
of Wit with a Private "Epistle to the Printer" prefixed to the second
edition of his Pierce Pennilesse his Supplication to the Divell
(1592), in which he repudiates having had anything to do with Greene's
Jonson spoke the last word in this quarrel, then grown
kindly, when he said that Shakspeare had little Latin and less
Greek. We should prefer to think the anecdote true that tells of
Shakspeare's reply to Jonson, it looks so representative. It is said
our Poet was godfather to one of Ben's children. After the
christening Ben found him in a deep study, and asked him what he was
thinking about. He replied that he had been considering what would
be the most fitting gift for him to bestow on his god-child, and he had
resolved at last. "I pry thee what?" says the father. "I'faith,
Ben," (fancy the rare smile of our gentle Willie!) "I'll e'en give him a
dowzen good Lattin spoones, and thou shalt translate them."
In Marston's Scourge of Villanie, satire 11, entitled
"Humours," there is a description which most unmistakably points to
Shakspeare, and no one else—
"Luscus, what's plaid to-day? Faith, now I know
I set thy lips abroach, from whence doth flow
Naught but pure Juliet and Romeo!
Say who acts best? Drusus or Roscio?
Now I hare him, that nere of ought did speak,
But when of Playes or Players he did treat—
Hath made a Commonplace-Book out of Playes,
And speaks in print: at least what ere he saies
Is warranted by curtain plaudites,
If ere you heard him courting Lesbia's eyes!
Say (courteous Sir), speaks he not movingly,
From out some new pathetique Tragedy?
He writes, he rails, he jests, he courts, (what not?)
And all from out his huge, long-scrapèd stock
Of well-penned Playes."
Marston had in a previous satire (the 7th) parodied the exclamation of
Richard in "A Man! a Man! a Kingdom for a Man!" And in this he
repeats the expressions and parodies the speech of Capulet when calling
upon his company for a dance—
"A hall! a hall! give room, and foot it, girls.
More light, ye knaves," &c.
Capulet had previously said—
"At my poor house, look to behold this night
This Marston mocks thus—
"A hall! a hall!
Room for the spheres, the orbs celestiall
Will dance Kemp's jigge; they'll revel with neat jumps;
A worthy Poet hath put on their pumps."
This will show how visibly Shakspeare was in the writer's mind. Next
"Roscius" was a name by which Burbage was everywhere known: he was called
by that name in his lifetime, and Camden uses it in chronicling the
player's death. Then we have Shakspeare coupled with him as "Drusus,"
either after the eloquent Roman Tribune or some character in a play now
lost. The two are named together as the chief men of the company
that played Romeo and Juliet. So these two, Shakspeare and
Burbage, are afterwards named together by John Davies in his
Microcosmos. Shakspeare is also identified by the allusion to
Romeo and Juliet. This Luscus is a worshipper of the new
dramatic poet, who speaks so movingly from out each new pathetic tragedy.
He talks of little else than Shakspeare, and is infected by the ebullient
passion of this wonderful drama that has taken the town by storm. At
the mention of a theatre, Shakspeare's is first in the satirist's mind,
and at the mention of plays he says, "Now, I know you are off! nothing
goes down with you but Shakspeare's play; you can talk of nothing but
Shakspeare." This notice is intensely interesting. It is the
gird of an envious rival, who pays unwilling tribute to our Poet's
increasing popularity, and at the same time gives us the most perfect
little sketch of the man and his manners, as Marston saw him! He has
marked his reticence in such company as that of Playwrights and Players;
only speaking upon what to them would be the subject of subjects; and he
feels well enough that he has never got at him. Now, he says, "I
have him who is so difficult to get at." He is known also as a great
maker of extracts; he keeps a Common-place book filled from out his huge
long-accumulating stock of plays. So that he has been a diligent
collector of dramas, a maker of notes, and a great student of his special
art. It has been his custom to copy the best things he met with into
his scrap-book. The satirist almost repeats Greene's Johannes
Fac-totum in his description of our Poet's varied ability, his aptness
in doing many things with as much earnestness as though each were the one
thing he came into this world to do. He writes, he rails, he jests,
he courts (what not?). And all—this is how the malevolent rival
accounts for the abounding genius!—and all from out his collection of
plays and the scraps hoarded in his common-place book. Marston's
Satyres were published in 1598, and this is evidently written at the
moment when Romeo and Juliet is in the height of its success.
It is the new pathetic tragedy of these lines. Also, the
image of the love-poet courting Lesbia's eyes is obviously suggested by
the balcony scene of this play.
It is curious, too, that he should ask which of the two is
the better actor—Shakspeare or Burbage? "He speaks in print"
reminds us of Hamlet's speech to the players. According to this
witness, it would look as though the Poet had there figured himself for us
somewhat as his contemporaries saw him amongst his own company of players.
It makes one wonder how much he had to do personally with the great acting
of Burbage in moulding such an embodiment of his own conceptions, and
inspiring the player when spirit sharpened spirit and face kindled face.
He was six years older than Burbage and the great Master of his Art.
Of course, Marston's notice is meant to be satirical, although he wriggles
in vain to raise a smile at his subject. This writer has another
mean "gird" at our Poet in his What you Will (Act II. sc. i.)—
"Ha! he mounts Chirall on the wings of fame,
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Look thee, I speak play scraps!"
which still further helps to identify Shakspeare by a double allusion.
The reader may now see how exceedingly probable is the
suggestion (p. 101) that
Marston does allude to the Sonnets written by Shakspeare for Southampton,
when, after speaking of Roscio's (Burbage's) verses, he says that
"absolute Castilio had furnished himself in like manner in order that he
might pay court to his mistress." Marston says of Shakspeare, "He
writes, he rails, he jests, he COURTS (what not?)."
There is no need to repeat the reasons previously given for
rejecting the belief that Spenser's well-known description in his
Teares of the Muses was meant for Shakspeare. Here the
representation is so according to our present view of the Poet that it has
been caught at and identified. But we may safely say that no man
living in 1590 (the year in which the poem was printed, possibly for the
second time) ever saw Shakspeare as the "man whom Nature's self had made
to mock herself, and truth to imitate."
The lines in Colin Clout's come home again, supposed
to point out our Poet, are in every way more likely—
"And there, though last not least, is Ætion;
A gentler Shepherd may no-where be found;
Whose Muse, full of high thoughts' invention,
Doth, like himself, heroically sound."
These suit the Poet's name, his nature, and his histories.
We get a side-glimpse, and can to some extent gauge how far
Shakspeare was known to his contemporaries generally in the year 1600, by
turning over the pages of England's Parnassus, in the Heliconia.
Here we come upon numerous quotations from the Lucrece and Venus
and Adonis, but the extracts from the Plays are most insignificant.
Yet at the time mentioned he had in all probability produced some twenty
of his dramas, including the Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant
of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, with
other fine works of his early and middle periods.
A breath of the passionate fragrance of the last-named
love-drama had reached beyond the stage. But how could the editor
make so few extracts from such a mine of wealth, and snatch no more from
its "dark of diamonds"? He is in search of illustrations for given
subjects, each of which Shakspeare has enriched with pictures surpassing
those of all other writers. He possesses taste enough to quote many
of the choicest passages from Spenser's poetry. The inference is
inevitable that the Poet and the poetry revealed to us in Shakspeare's
Plays were unknown to Robert Allot, and possibly he only quoted at
second-hand. A Playwright was not looked upon as a Poet so much as a
Worker for the Stage. Plays were not considered literature proper or
belles lettres until Shakspeare made them so. They were
written for a purpose and paid for. The Plays of Shakspeare were the
property of the theatre. Spenser was the great Apollo of his age.
He had the true mythological touch and classical tread. Accordingly,
the Heliconia contains nearly four hundred quotations from Spenser
and only ninety-six from Shakspeare; these mainly from his two poems.
Webster, in his Dedication to the White Devil, speaks
of the "right happy and copious industry of Master Shakspeare," but he
names him after Chapman and Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher.
It was impossible for Shakspeare's contemporaries to divine
what there was in his works as we know them. They could not help
hearing of his dramatic successes, and would often feel these to be
The early poems were well known, and some of the Sonnets were
in circulation, but no one could predicate from these the stupendous
genius that orbed out and reached its full circle in Lear, and the
other great Tragedies.
He was better known, however, within the Theatre, and there
Ben Jonson, being himself a player and playwright, got the truest glimpse
of Shakspeare's mental stature. But if Jonson had really understood
what Shakspeare had done for the stage, for dramatic poetry, for English
Literature, how could he afterwards boast that he himself would yet "raise
the despised head of Poetry; stripping her out of those rotten and base
rags wherewith the times have adulterated her form, and restore her to her
primitive use and majesty, and render her worthy to be embraced and kissed
of all the great and master spirits of the world"? This, after
Shakspeare had found Poetry on the stage the slave of drudgery, the menial
of the mob, and taken her by the hand, like his own Marina, and led her
forth apparelled in all freshness of the spring; fairer to look on than
the "evening air, clad in the beauty of ten thousand stars," and made her
the nursing mother of children strong and splendid; set her on a throne
and crowned her as a queen whose subjects are wide humanity, whose realm
is the world.
Ben's mind was hardly of a kind to jump with that of
Shakspeare in its largest leaps. He was the genuine prototype of the
critical kind that has yet a few living specimens in those persons who
still persist in looking upon Shakspeare as a writer far too redundant in
expression. They appear to think the foliage waving above too lusty
and large for the sustaining rootage below. They have a feeling that
Shakspeare was a Poet marvellously endowed by Nature, but deficient in
Art, the truth being, that what they mean by Art is the smack of
consciousness in the finish left so apparent that the poetry is, as it
were, stereotyped, and the finish gives to it a kind of metallic face;
smooth to the touch, and flattering to a certain critical sense.
They like their poetry to be fossilized and wear a
recognizable pattern. Whereas Shakspeare's is all alive, and
illuminated from within; as full of Nature in a book as the flowers are in
The secret which, in Shakspeare, is unfathomable can be found
out in the works of more self-conscious men. In them Nature is
subordinate to Art. But this is not the greatest Art; it is the
lesser Art, made more striking because there is less Nature.
His is not the serene art of Sophocles; it does not always
smile severely on the surface. Then he has—
"Such miracles performed in play,
Such letting Nature have its way!"
and the Nature is so boundless, we have to traverse such an infinity of
suggestiveness, that it is not easy for us to beat the bounds. But
the Art of Shakspeare transcends all other Art in kind as much as the
inscrutable beauty of soul transcends the apparent beauty of form and
feature; and his judgment is as sure as his genius is capacious.
Judge him not by Greek Drama or French Art, but accept the conditions
under which he wrought, the national nature with which he dealt, and he
has reached the pure simplicity of uttermost perfection fifty times over
to any other Poet's once! In all Shakspeare's great Plays his Art,
his mastery of materials, is even more consummate, though less apparent,
than that of Milton, and it holds the infinitely larger system of human
world and starry brood of mind in its wider revolutions, with as safe a
tug of gravitation. It is the testimony of all the greatest and most
modest men that the longer they read his works, the more reasons they find
to admire his marvellous wisdom, and his transcendent intuition in all
mysteries of Law as well as knowledge of life.
Harvey's lusty réveille and Ben Jonson's eulogy
notwithstanding, it is quite demonstrable that Shakspeare's contemporaries
had no adequate conception of what manner of man or majesty of mind were
amongst them. We know him better than they did! He came upon
the stage of his century like the merest lighter of a theatre. He
kindled there such a splendour and jetted such "brave fire" as the world
never before saw. He did his work so quietly, greeted his fellows so
pleasantly, and retired so silently, that the men whose faces now shine
for us, chiefly from his reflected light, did not notice him sufficiently
to tell us what he was like; did not see that this man Shakspeare had come
to bring a new soul into the land—that here was the spontaneous effort of
the national spirit to assert itself in our literature, and stand forth
free from the old Greek tyranny which might otherwise have continued to
crush our drama, as it seems to have crippled our sculpture to this
day—that in these plays all the rills of language and knowledge running
from other lands were to be merged and made one in this great ocean of
English life. Not one of them saw clearly as we do that whereas
Homer was the poet of Greece, and Dante the poet of Italy, this gentle
Willie Shakspeare, player and playwright, was destined to be the
Poet of the World!
His real glory was unguessed at! They could have given
him no assurance of the "all-hail hereafter"; the lofty expansion of his
fame that now fills the proud round of the great Globe Theatre of our
earth. His future was beyond the range of prophecy. How could
they dream of the imperial way in which the Player should ascend his
throne, to set the wide round ringing whose vast arch reverberates his
voice from side to side, whilst wave on wave, age after age, the pæan of
applause is caught up and continued and rolled on for ever by the passing
I often think that one reason why he left no profounder
personal impression on them was because he was so much of a good fellow in
general; his nature was so commonly human and fitting all round, as to
seem to them nothing remarkable in particular. They failed to
penetrate the mask of his modesty. His greatness of soul was not of
a kind to puff out mere personal peculiarities, or manners "high
fantastical." He did not take his seat in a crowding company with
the bodily bulge of big Ben, or tread on their toes with the vast weight
of his "mountain belly" and hodman's shoulders, nor come in contact with
them as Ben would, with the full force of his hard head and "rocky face."
Shakspeare's personal influence was not of the sort that is so palpably
felt at all times, and often most politely acknowledged. He must
have moved amongst them more like an Immortal invisible in the humanity.
There was room in his serene and spacious soul for the whole of his
stage-contemporaries to sit at feast. His influence embraced them,
lifted them out of themselves, floated them up from earth; and while their
veins ran quicksilver, and the life within them lightened, they would
shout with Matheo, "Do we not fly high?" Are we not amazingly
clever fellows?—How little they knew what they owed to the mighty one in
their midst! How little could they gauge the virtue of his presence
which wrapped them in a diviner ether! When we breathe in a larger
life, and a ruddier health from the atmosphere that surrounds us and sets
us swimming in a sea of heart's-ease, we seldom pause to estimate how much
in weight the atmosphere presses to the square inch! So was it with
the personal influence of Shakspeare upon his fellows. They felt the
exaltation, the invisible radiation of health, the flowing humanity that
filled their felicity to the brim; but did not think of the weight of
greatness that he brought to bear on every square inch of them. The
Spirit of the Age sat in their midst, but it moved them so naturally they
forgot to note its personal features, and he was not the man to be
flashing his immortal jewel in their eyes on purpose to call attention to
Big Ben took care to bequeath his body as well as his mind to
us. We know how much flesh he carried. We know his love of
good eating and strong drink; his self-assertiveness and lust of power.
We know that he required a high tide of drink before he could launch
himself and get well afloat, and that amongst the Elizabethan song birds
he was named, after his beloved liquor, a "Canary" bird. One cannot
help fancying that Shakspeare, as he sat quietly listening to Ben's brag,
got many a hint for the fattening and glorifying of his own Falstaff.
How different it is with our Poet! We get no glimpse of him in his
cups. The names they give him, however, are significant. They
call him the "gentle Willie," the "beloved," the "honey-tongued."
Fuller's description produces an impression that Ben Jonson was no match
for Shakspeare in mental quickness when they met in their wit-combats at
the 'Mermaid.' Ben carried most in sight; Shakspeare more out of
sight. For the rest, there is not much to show us what the man
Shakspeare was, or to tell us that his fellows knew what he was. But
their silence is full of meaning. It tells that he was not an
extraordinary man in the vulgar sense, which means something peculiar, and
startling at first sight. He must have been too complete a man to be
marked out by that which implies incompleteness—some special faculty held
up for wonder, and half picked out by disparity on the other side; as the
valley's depth becomes a portion of the mountain's height. There was
nothing of this about Shakspeare. And his completeness, his ripeness
all round, his level height, his serenity, would all tend to hide his
greatness from them. They can tell us the shape of Greene's beard,
which he "cherished continually, without cutting; a jolly long red peak,
like the spire of a steeple, whereat a man might hang a jewel, it was so
sharp and pendant," his "continual shifting of lodgings;" the nasal
sound of Ben Jonson's voice, and his face "punched full of eyelet-holes
like the lid of a warming-pan." But they tell us nothing in this
kind about Shakspeare, man or manner, and this tells us much.
We know they thought him a man of sweetest temper and
readiest wit, honest and frank, of an open and free nature, very gentle
and lovable, and as social a good fellow as ever lived. And, indeed,
he must have been the best of all good fellows that ever was so wise a
man. Like other fixed stars he could twinkle. He could make
merry with those roystering madcaps at the 'Mermaid,' who heard the
"chimes at midnight" but did not heed them, and he could preserve the
eternal rights of his own soul, and keep sacred its brooding solitude.
He could be the tricksy spirit of mad whim and waggery; one of the
sprightliest maskers at the carnival of high spirits, and then go home
majestic in his serious mood as he had been glorious in his gladness, and
brood over what he had seen of life, and put forth those loveliest
creations of his which seem to have unfolded in the still and balmy
night-time when men slept, and the flowers in his soul's garden were fed
with the purest dews of heaven.
Ben Jonson certainly knew his greatest contemporary best, and
his unstinted praise is all the more precious for his criticism. I
have before now spoken too grudgingly of Ben, having, like others, been
unduly influenced by the often asserted ill-feeling said to have been
shown by him toward Shakspeare. It does seem as though you have only
to repeat a lie often to get it confirmed with the world in general as a
truth. I ought to have relied more on the spirit of his poem.
He has left us the noblest lines ever written on Shakspeare; in these we
have the very finest, fullest, frankest recognition of the master-spirit
of imagination. Ben's nature never mellowed into a manly modesty
like that of Shakspeare's, nor did he ever bask in the smiles of popular
favour or the golden sunshine of pecuniary success as did his overtowering
and victorious contemporary, but, in recognizing Shakspeare as a writer
too great for rivalry, he actually reaches a kindred greatness.
Speaking of Jonson's eulogy, Dr. Ingleby has remarked, "One
could wish that Ben had said all this in Shakspeare's lifetime."
Nay, but think how the kindliest remembrance of the man came over him, and
overcame all rival memories, and how the likeness of Ben becomes truly
self-glorified whilst he is passing under Shakspeare's shadow, from which
he suffered permanent eclipse! Nor do I think the likeness in the
well-known tributary lines presents the only personal impression of
Shakspeare left by Ben Jonson. If it had not been for the persistent
endeavour to prove Shakspeare a lawyer, and too confidently assumed that
the character, or rather the name, of Ovid, in the Poetaster (produced
at Shakspeare's theatre, 1601), was intended for Shakspeare, it would
have been seen that it is in the character of "Virgil" that Jonson has
rendered the nature of the man, the quality of his learning, the affluence
of his poetry, the height at which the Poet himself stood above his work,
in the truest, best likeness of Shakspeare extant:—
judge him of a rectified spirit,
(By many revolutions of discourse
In his bright reason's influence) refined
From all the tartarous moods of common men:
Bearing the nature and similitude
Of a right heavenly body: most severe
In fashion and collection of himself,
And then as clear and confident as Jove.
Gal. And yet so chaste and tender is
In suffering any syllable to pass,
That he thinks may become the honoured name
Of issue to his so-examined self, 
That all the lasting fruits of his full merit,
In his own poems, he doth still distaste;
As if his mind's piece, which he strove to paint,
Could not with fleshly pencils have her right.
Tib. But to approve his works of
This observation, methinks, more than serves,
And is not vulgar. That which he hath writ
Is with such judgment laboured, and distilled
Through all the needful uses of our lives,
That could a man remember but his lines,
He should not touch at any serious point
But he might breathe his spirit out of him.
Cæsar. You mean, he might repeat
part of his works,
As fit for any conference he can use?
Tib. True, royal Cæsar.
And a most worthy virtue in his works.
What thinks material Horace of his learning?
Horace. His learning savours not the
That most consists in echoing words and terms,
And soonest wins a man an empty name:
Nor any long or far-fetched circumstance
Wrapped in the various generalities of Art,
But a direct and analytic sum
Of all the worth and first effects of Arts.
And for his poesy, 'tis so rammed with life,
That it shall gather strength of life with being,
And live hereafter more admired than now. "—Act V. sc. i.