Shakspear's Sonnets (1866 edition)

Home Up Biography Poetry Prose Reviews News Reports Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

THE LIVING AGE.

VOLUME IV.

JANUARY, FEBRUARY, MARCH, 1867.



'Shakespeare in Domestic Life'

From the British Quarterly Review.

______________________

Shakespeare's Sonnets, never before Interpreted; His Private Friends Identified: together with a Recovered Likeness of Himself. By GERALD MASSEY.  Longmans and Co.

______________________


AMONG the vexed questions that have engaged the literary world during the last thirty or forty years, that of Shakespeare's sonnets has held a conspicuous place. After having been all but forgotten for more than a century, these sonnets, when republished, so far from awakening admiration, seem to have been viewed by the blundering, self-conceited critics of George the Third's days actually with disgust, Steevens declaring that 'the strongest Act of Parliament would not be strong enough to compel their being read,' while Malone oracularly pronouces them 'a jumble of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense!'  It was reserved for the deeper feeling, the clearer insight of the poet, to recognize and welcome these exquisite gems; and Wordsworth and Coleridge  rejoiced as over the discovery of long-buried treasure, at the reappearance of Shakespeare's sonnets.

    By both these true poets the sonnets seem to have been viewed as a miscellaneous collection.  Dr. Drake, some sixty years ago, was the first to adopt what has been called 'the personal theory,' and it was he, too, who pointed out the Earl of Southampton as the 'friend' to whom the greater number were addressed.  Mr. Boaden, who also advocated the personal theory, considered that the Earl of Pembroke was the friend, and in this opinion he is joined by Mr. Hallarn.  The discoveries, as Mr. Gerald Massey truly remarks, 'reached their climax' when Mr. Charles Armitage Brown's strange work appeared in 1838, in which he asserts the sonnets to be strictly autobiographical, and devoted to the praiseworthy purpose of celebrating Shakespeare's intrigue with a married woman, whom he, in the sequel, kindly resigns to his friend; 'a theory,' as Mr. Massey indignantly remarks, 'adduced without one atom of proof; assuming that Shakespeare was a self-debaser and self-defamer, of a species that has no previous type, no after copy.'

    It is strange to remember how eagerly this revolting theory was seized upon by some of the critics of that day, and it is strange to see how many commentators, even in the present, still uphold it, although all the careful research of Messrs. Hunter, Dyce, Collier, and Halliwell, have found not the slightest evidence for its support.  We cannot but smile when we find some of these later writers, influenced probably by the direct testimony to Shakespeare's moral character, amiably conceding that if he sinned, he also very properly repented, and therefore we must not censure him too severely; while going yet further, a German critic, Dr. Ulrici, considers that with marvellous self-denial, Shakespeare, having fallen, 'set the matter forth as a warning to the world, and offered himself up for the good of others,' although why he did not make this amende in the more tangible form of a pamphlet, like poor Green's 'Groat's worth of Wit bought by a Million of Repentance,' instead of a series of sonnets, which have been stumbling-blocks to so many—a complete riddle, it is hard to understand.

    In the work before us, Mr. Gerald Massey, after a very interesting, though too laudatory memoir of the Earl of Southampton, for whom, and at whose request, he thinks the greater part of the sonnets were written, proceeds to class them as 'personal' and 'dramatic.' The 'personal' are those addressed by Shakespeare to the Earl; the 'dramatic,' those of the Earl to Elizabeth Vernon, of Elizabeth to him; and lastly, 'the dark story of the sonnets,' which he interprets as an intrigue between William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke, and Lady Rich, the Stella of Sidney's exquisite poems.  In all this, Mr. Massey has shown much ingenuity, and displayed much eloquent argumentation; but we cannot accept his conclusions.  That the first seventeen, and many of the subsequent sonnets, are addressed to Lord Southampton, we readily concede; but that those which are assigned to Southampton, were written in his name, we can scarcely allow, nor those written for his lady love, Elizabeth Vernon.  Few young men would lament so pathetically the death of a father twelve years after, as to talk of 'weeping afresh love's long since cancelled woe,' nor would the nobleman, who on every journey was followed by a crowd of livened retainers, represent himself alone as he 'plods dully on,' or his steed— always the young nobleman's pride—as 'the beast that bears me,' 'my dull bearer,' 'the jade.'  The very homeliness of so many of these sonnets proves to us that several were written for persons in Shakespeare's own rank of life.  Among those which Mr. Gerald Massey thinks were written for Elizabeth Vernon, we find some that could not be addressed to her lover.  In the thirty-fourth, the line, 'Ah! but those tears are pearls which thy love sheds,' is simply ridiculous as addressed to a young man, and one about to go to the wars, but addressed by a lover to his lady, it is graceful enough; and prettily, too, in the following sonnet does he condone her passing inconstancy by the remark that, 'roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud.'

    With regard to the 'dark lady of the sonnets,' we cannot accept Mr. Gerald Massey's interpretation.  William Herbert, although the son of a most excellent and gifted woman, we know scarcely inherited even her beauty, much less her virtues.  He was quite capable of forming a reckless attachment to a married woman, but there are insuperable objections to that woman being Lady Rich.  That she was old enough to be his mother, may not be a sufficient reason, but that she was the lost lady love of his gifted uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, looked upon—ere her liaison with Mountjoy—by Lady Pembroke as a very sister, must have made it difficult for the young boy to view her save as his aunt.  And then, although faithless to the memory of peerless Sidney, she was ever believed  to be true to Mountjoy; nor did even the scandal of the times ever point out another lover.  There is some most splendid writing in the chapter relating to this unfortunate beauty, who seems to have exercised a strangely witching spell, even from the tomb, over our author, although he never palliates her conduct; and he paints her gorgeous beauty, laying on touch after touch, until she stands before us in glowing loveliness, as though fresh from the hand of Giorgione or Titian.  We cannot, however, help thinking with Mr. Dyce and Mr. Charles Knight, that after all, there is no secret history concealed beneath Shakespeare's sonnets, but that they were composed on different subjects, often under an assumed character, and that after having been widely circulated in manuscript, they were at length collected together and published.

    We thank Mr. Gerald Massey for his spirited vindication of Shakespeare.  It is, indeed, strange that in the one case, upon such slight grounds, in the other on really no grounds at all, merely on bare conjecture, Shakespeare should have been represented as unhappy in his marriage, and then as engaged in a disgraceful intrigue with a married woman.  Now, all the circumstances of his life, so far as we can trace them, refute both views, especially if we look at them in the light of his own times.  It is, indeed, for want of close acquaintance with these times, that so many of Shakespeare's biographers have sadly blundered; and it is this acquaintance that renders Mr Charles Knight's views of him, in many respects, far more correct.  We think, however, that by carefully re-examining the details, though so few, of Shakespeare's domestic life, we may obtain a yet clearer view of him, and perhaps a new and unexpected light may be cast on his family relations.

    It is about the middle of the sixteenth century that the name of 'John Shakespeare' first meets us in the records of the good town of Stratford-upon-Avon.  Homely enough are the entries, for in the one he is represented as proceeded against for the recovery of a debt of some eight pounds, and in the other he is fined, together with his neighbours, for neglecting to remove the dirt near his house in Henley-street.  Much conjecture has been expended as to his calling, but as in the action against him he is expressly termed a glover, there is no doubt that at this time such was his trade.  That subsequently, when through his marriage he became a farm-owner, and kept sheep, he became also a woolstapler, is very likely too.  In 1557, John Shakespeare married a maiden of ancient family, although her father is designated merely as a husbandman,—Mary Arden, seventh and youngest daughter of Robert Arden, of Wilmecote, who died the year before, bequeathing to her what, in those days, might be considered a considerable amount of landed property.

    John Shakespeare brought home his young bride to Henley-street, and here, little dreaming of the glory which should hereafter rest upon that lowly dwelling, they resided many years; and here their eight children were born; the third, immortal William, was born on April 23rd, 1564.  For many years the career of John Shakespeare seems to have been prosperous.  He was high bailiff in 1569, and became chief alderman in 1571; but it will probably surprise many of our readers, that the father of our greatest poet, the burgess who attained the highest municipal offices, was unable even to sign his name.  It is true, this inability was shared by the majority of his brother aldermen, for of the nineteen who sign the document given in Charles Knight's 'Pictorial Shakespeare,' only six write their names, while the rest make their marks.  We must not, however, too hastily conclude from this that these men were uneducated, strange as it may appear; for we must bear in mind that grammar schools were plentiful, and in these every boy was put through a course of Latin, which would rather astonish the master of a 'classical academy' in the present day.  Lylly's capital Latin grammar was commanded on royal authority (Henry VIII.) 'to be all and everywhere used,' and competent judges have declared that the grammar schools of the sixteenth century supplied the elements of a scholarship to which later times can lay no claim.  But they were 'grammar schools,' and in them—as will be seen in our public schools—no provision for teaching writing was made, and thus John Shakespeare, although uninitiated in even 'pot-hooks and hangers,' was probably able to parse Yirgil. [1]

    The inability of Shakespeare's father to write his name becomes, however, of importance in reference to the suggestion so authoritatively made by some, that he was a Roman Catholic.  Now the common mark, even to the present day, is a cross.  This was the customary sign then; can we, therefore, imagine that an adherent of the ancient faith would reject the only opportunity legally offered of making that sign which he would gladly use on all occasions?  But John Shakespeare makes a kind of figure which, perhaps, resembles a great A more than anything else, and this is used in his subsequent signatures.  His wife, too, 'made her mark,' but she rejected the cross, and the signature resembles a very badly formed M, probably the initial of her baptismal name.  Now, is it not more likely that John Shakespeare was a firm adherent of the reformed faith? one of those anxious to “do away with every remnant of Babylon,' and to whom, therefore, crosses, as we learn from the records of those times, were objects, under every form, of especial abhorrence? [2] But whatever were John Shakespeare's motives, there were plenty of his brother aldermen to follow his example, for of the twelve who are 'marksmen,' only three make the sign of the cross.  This seems to us as though the feeling of attachment to the reformed faith was strong among the inhabitants of the good town of Stratford-upon-Avon.  Nor is this unlikely: Coventry and Banbury, the very nests of early Puritanism, were within an easy distance, while the great Earl, second in power only to the Queen, and who dwelt in royal state at Kenilworth, had already proclaimed himself the protector of those who had unavailingly entered their protest against 'an unfinished Reformation.'  The argument against John Shakespeare's adherence to the ancient faith may be further strengthened by the remembrance of the large acquaintance with the Scriptures our Shakespeare exhibits—not a mere textual knowledge, but an extensive acquaintance, especially with the historical portions.  Were not these learnt in early boyhood from Cranmer's Bible, that most cherished possession of the Protestant, who, not many years before, had seen men led to the stake for merely using it?

    And here in the pleasant though homely dwelling in Henley-street might the poet of all time be seen, some three hundred years ago in his nurse's arms; and then in his go-cart; and then able to trot by his proud father's side—for Willie was his son and heir and for more than two years his only child.  Who that looked upon that pretty boy, with his bright hazel eyes and noble expanse of  forehead, dreamt then of his world-wide fame!

    And then, after an interval of some years,—for precocious learning was always denounced by our wiser forefathers,— came the days of the hornbook and primer; and then the school days, when, under the rule of Thomas Hunt, he became a scholar in the grammar school of his native town.  Ere long, Hunt was succeeded by Thomas Jenkins.  The name is Welsh —was this Jenkins the prototype of choleric, good cheerloving Sir Hugh Evans of the 'Merry Wives of Windsor?' the schoolmaster who so rigidly examined Willie Page in his accidence and his 'nominatve big, hag, hog—pray you mark.'  Very possibly, we think; and many another quaint and humourous character we doubt not was photographed by that wondrous boy, and stored away in his mind to come forth fresh and vivid many years after.

    We have referred to the competent instruction afforded in the grammar schools of the sixteenth century; the notion, therefore of Shakespeare being uneducated is wholly unfounded.  That Jonson spoke slightingly of his learning may be easily accounted for.  It was an age of profound scholarship, and Ben Jonson took high place, and was celebrated as much for his learning as his poetry.  Thus, when he remarks, and it is in no unkind spirit,—

'And tho' thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,'

he simply means that classical learning was not Shakespeare's 'specialty,' but that he had far higher gifts than a mere university education could bestow.  Be it remembered, that what in the present day would pass for a fair amount of classical learning, would, in Shakespeare's time, be small indeed.

    How pleasant would it be if we could recover some traces of the glad boyhood of our greatest poet.  It was a stirring age, full of great marvels, of unlooked-for events.  'Old things' had not as yet passed away, although there was so much that was new.  The old traditions, the old romance that beautified so many a spot, still lingered, and the wild and wonderful of past ages mingled not inharmoniously with the wild and wonderful of a present time when the old world was convulsed to its centre, and a new world had been found.  Many a solemn old-world story, many a quaint ballad, must the boy have listened to,—many a tale of the red rose and the white, told by men whose fathers fought at Bosworth hard by; and many a tale of adventure in far-off lands told by the maimed wayfarer, as he waited the renewal of his 'pass.'  It has been conjectured that the 'princely pleasures of Kenilworth' were displayed before the boy Shakespeare's eager eyes.  We doubt much if children so young would have been allowed to accompany the worshipful aldermen of Stratford-upon-Avon; but much talk was there, doubtless, of that gorgeous series of pageants; and the boy was doubtless no unheedful listener.  Dramatic exhibitions must, however, have been familiar to young Shakespeare.  There were the Coventry plays,—for many generations the boast of that ancient city, and considered of importance enough to be performed at Kenilworth before the queen.  And as early as 1569, when John Shakespeare was high bailiff, 'the queen's players ' performed in the good town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and received nine shillings from the corporation.

    Much misapprehension has existed as to the status of these early players, some writers having considered them as mere vagabonds, wandering from town to town like the gypsies,— lawless men, only to be kept in awe by the stocks and the whipping-post. And yet, although many were objectionable in character, some were well respected, and decent men.  The case really is, that when at the Reformation the acting of miracle plays by the trade companies ceased, the calling of the actor became recognized; and many a scholar who boasted a university education became one of a 'company' to perform those interludes and moralities, which did such good service in promoting it.  As in those days it was necessary that every man should either belong to some trade-guild, or, to some noble household, these players associated themselves under the patronage of some powerful nobleman, and, like the minstrels and trouvères of the Middle Ages, travelled from town to town.  Their mode of proceeding, is described in a curious old Puritan book, entitled 'Mount Tabor.'  'It is the manner when players come to town, they first attend the mayor to inform him what nobleman's servants they are, and so get a license for their public playing; and if the mayor like the actors, or would show respect to their lord and master, he appoints them to play their first play before himself and the aldermen; and that is called the mayor's play, where every one that will comes in without money, the mayor giving the players a reward as he thinks fit, to show respect to them.'

    Strange, doubtless, may it seem to some readers, that John Shakespeare, whom we have represented as ultra-Protestant, should have encouraged stage players; but his very encouragement is another proof that he was no adherent of the ancient faith, for the early stage was distinguished by fierce hostility to it.  It is, indeed, curious to mark the extreme Protestantism of these earliest dramatic specimens—the interludes.  Earnest exhortations to the spectators not to be 'cozened by lying prestes,' to search the Bible for themselves, to frequent sermons, and 'godly converse,' abound in them; while in many the ridicule cast upon saints' days, 'corner-caps,' but especially the surplice, almost anticipates the times of Martin Marprelate.  The early drama fought a good fight in the cause of religious freedom, and not until late in Elizabeth's reign was the stage viewed as antagonistic to the pulpit.  Mr. Charles Knight is wrong in charging the Puritans with beginning the strife, for the earliest denouncers of stage-plays are Northbrooke and Gosson, both of whom held livings in the Established Church.  More truly, he remarks, that it is in these rude interludes that we must seek for the foundation of the English drama, for it was not 'created,' even by Shakespeare and his great contemporaries, but was 'formed by a course of steady progress, not by rapid transition.'  The authorities of the good town of Stratford-upon-Avon seem to have welcomed the visits of these wondering players, for there are many entries in the accounts of  payments made to them in the course of the following years; and doubtless, from these rude essays did the great poet of all time receive his first lessons.

    But years pass on; the boy's school days are ended; and many have been the conjectures as to how the interval between quitting school and his early marriage was spent.  That he was apprenticed to a woolstapler, was employed in a lawyer's office, was assistant in a school, are some of these; but stupid old Aubrey's assertion that he was apprenticed to a butcher, and when he killed a calf would do it 'in high style,' 'and make a speech,' is the most extravagant of all—indeed, it is revolting.  The poet who, by consent of all his contemporaries, was styled the 'gentle Shakespeare, he, who sympathized so deeply with the sequestered stag,' whose feelings of pity went forth even to the 'poor beetle which we tread upon,' killing a calf 'in a high style!'  We should not have referred to this contemptible story, were it not that the testimony of Aubrey is still sometimes quoted in respect to Shakespeare's early life.  Surely it is time that such a witness should be put out of court.

    After carefullest inquiry, none of the many biographers of Shakespeare can discover more respecting him until his marriage, than that his father's circumstances had by the years 1578—9 become embarrassed.  We then find John Shakespeare, together with his wife, mortgaging an estate for £40, and the following year parting with his wife's interests in two tenements for the sum of £4 (in both these instances we must take the sums at about four times their value, present money).  From this time the connection of John Shakespeare with the corporation of Stratford appears to have been seldom.  Some time later we find him assessed toward providing 'pikemen, billmen, and archers,' only half the sum charged to his brother aldermen; but even that is eventually unpaid, while he is also exempted from the weekly payment for the relief of the poor; and at length in 1586 he resigns his alderman's gown.  It seems, therefore, very likely that from some cause—blameless we are sure, for John Shakespeare never lost the respect of his townsmen, but dwelt among them to his latest day—our great poet's father sank into comparative poverty, just when his gifted son was preparing to enter the world.  The family in 1580 consisted of five children, William being the eldest, and the youngest an infant in arms.

    Would that we could find some record, however slight, of how these years preceding Shakespeare's early marriage were passed.  The deer-stealing tradition, although believed in by Mr. Collier, seems to us apocryphal.  Certainly the doggrel ballad ascribed to Shakespeare was never written by him.  But how natural was it that the rushes who saw the noble boy wandering among the green solitudes of that ancient forest, which still stretched along the western boundary of Warwickshire, should believe that love of the most cherished sport of our forefathers alone led him thither?  Indeed, in love of forest scenery Shakespeare is loyally true to the old English feeling.  'Merry it is in the fayre forest,' felt our Shakespeare, heartily as the nameless minstrel of the olden tunes.  And what exquisite glimpses of forest scenery has he given us!  How he seems, too, to have lingered over the remembrance of the haunts of his blithe childhood, when in one of his later plays he gives the very name, Arden, to the forest where Jacques wandered, and Rosalind played her pretty masquerading fancies!  It is his marvellous dramatic power, his magic skill as painter of men, that has thrown into the shade Shakespeare's exquisite feeling for natural scenery.

    Warwickshire was a pleasant county in Shakespeare's day, when the remains of the great forest of Arden still boasted those splendid oaks and beeches which had given shelter to so many a generation of 'bold outlaws;' and the southern part displayed such pastoral beauty, that Speed, rising almost into poetry, celebrates its 'meadowy pastures with their green mantles so embroidered with flowers, that from Edgehill we behold another Elen.'  And here the poet of all time, wandering in the blithe springtide of his days along the shady lanes, the grassy slopes, the leafy glades of pleasant, pastoral Warwickshire, met his future wife, Anne Hathaway.

    Little can we learn when or where they first met, whether at some merry country feast or bridal, at some family gathering, or loitering alone some green lanes.  Indeed, until very lately, all we could learn was, that Anne Hathaway dwelt at Shottery, and was older than Shakespeare.  The careful research of Mr. Halliwell has, however, discovered a copy of her father's will and although this, of course, throws little light on Shakespeare's courtship, it supplies an interesting picture of a rural household in the days of Elizabeth.

    This is dated September, 1581, and is the will of 'Richard Hathway, of Shottree, in the parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, husbandman.'  He leaves his sons, Thomas and John, £6 13s. 4d. each, and to William £10.  His eldest son, Bartholomew, is left joint owner, with his mother Joan, of the farm; 'and my will is, that he shall be a guide to my saide wife in her husbandrye, and also a comforte to his brethrene and sisters to his power.'  The daughters, three in number, have each £6 13s. 4d.; their names are Agnes, Catherine, and Margaret.  Some difficulty has been felt as to the name 'Anne' not being found, and it has been thought that she was perhaps, for some cause or other, not under her father's roof at the time; but when we see how very arbitrary was the spelling of those days, and the frequent carelessness of the scribes who were employed to draw up such documents, we think 'Agnes' might have been inserted by mistake for Anne. [3]

    There is a homely kindliness in the subsequent bequests.  Hathaway's god-children are to have 'fourpence a piece,' his two nieces 'a sheep a piece of them,' and his 'trusty friends and neighbours, Stephen Burman and Foulke Sandells, my supervisors of this my last will, to have for their paynes twelve pence a piece of them.'  This will was not proved until the July of the following year, and as in the preamble, Hathaway states that he is 'sicke in bodye,' his death must have been preceded by a long illness.  It was probably during this time that young Shakespeare wooed and won Anne.  The date of his 'marriage bond' is in the November following Hathaway's death, and from the fact of Anne's eldest daughter being born in the following May, some biographers of Shakespeare have very harshly suggested that Anne had 'loved not wisely, but too well.'  To readers, however, acquainted with the usages of these times, no vindidiation of Shakespeare or his bride will be needed, for they well know that during the sixteenth century, simple 'troth-plight before witnesses' was viewed as legal wedlock, or, if especial secrecy were desired, the aid of some 'Sir Oliver Martext,' who stood ready to marry any willing couple 'under a bush like a beggar,' as Jacques irreverently says, could be easily invoked.  Rather suggestive is it to find Shakespeare so frequently introducing stolen marriages into his plays.  Did he, like Lysander, flee away with his Hermia through the fairy-haunted wood, or like young Fenton, rejected by the wealthy father, triumphantly bear off 'sweet mistress Anne' from all his rivals?

    Meanwhile Hathaway dies; his will is proved; and by its provisions, proof of his daughter's marriage would become necessary, that she might receive her legacy.  But those furtive marriages, although recognized as binding, might have been viewed by the family, as they frequently were, with distrust.  What is more likely then, that mutual friends should suggest a second and more public wedding?  It is to this that the 'marriage bond' doubtless refers, and that no disgrace was believed to attach to Anne, the long interval between her father's death in the summer, and her marriage not until late in November proves; while that the friends of the Hathaways took part with the young couple is evident from John Richardson, one of the witnesses, and Foulke Sandells, one of the 'supervisors' of Hathaway's will, being the two 'bondsmen,' who engage that 'William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey be maried together with once asking the bannes.'  Where this second marriage took place has not been discovered.

    The same obscurity rests upon Shakespeare's early married life. Whether by the aid of the £6 13s. 4d. the young couple entered upon their simple housekeeping—for small as the sum appears, even taking it at its present value, between twenty and thirty pounds, it might be sufficient to provide the homely 'plenishing' of those days—or whether they became inmates of the pleasant cottage at Shottery, we know not.  Probably the latter, for an old settle is still pointed to, which tradition reports Shakespeare used to occupy outside the door, and where, 'over canopied by lush woodbines' he might sit, seeing dimly perchance as yet, those bright and glowing visions, which ere long should take tangible form, and endure to all ages.  Tradition reports that the young poet's bride was beautiful.  It is little wonder if so, that Shakespeare, ever the worshipper of all loveliness, heeded not that disparity of years, which some of his biographers have so bitterly censured.  Probably he never thought of it, for the English woman at twenty-six is in the full glow of her beauty; and when did ever youth of eighteen look forward to the changes twenty or thirty years might bring?  But on this subject some of Shakespeare's biographers wax strangely indignant.  Mr. De Quincey, as though just awakened from a grim opium dream, invests poor Anne with a gratuitous beard, actually quoting Sir Hugh Evans' remark about the old woman of Brentford's 'great peard,' to prove how bitterly Shakespeare repented the folly of marrying a wife eight years older than himself.  Far more wisely does Charles Knight remark that, 'the history of most imaginative minds, probably of most men of great ability, would show, that in the first loves, and in the early marriages of this class, the choice has generally fallen upon women older than themselves.'

    That so wayward a writer as De Quincey, or so imperfectly informed a critic as Malone, should, without any direct proof, peremptorily determine that Shakespeare's married life was unhappy, is not surprising but that Mr. Collier should suspect it was so, while he has not supplied us with any additional evidence, is very strange.  That soon after his marriage our great poet quitted Stratford for London may be easily accounted for, by his father's reduced circumstances, and the greater facilities for obtaining employment there; but it certainly seems unaccountable, if dislike to his wife drove Shakespeare to London, that he should have striven so hard to obtain a competency to enable him to return home again, actually, as Gerald Massey most truly says, 'to live with his rustic wife, and buy for her the best house in Stratford.'

    We think the evidence of Shakespeare's own works may be appealed to on this subject.  Where can we find such a galaxy of moral loveliness, of sweet and noble womanhood, as he has painted?  What other dramatist ever marshalled so 'goodly a company' of pure and high-minded women?—Hermione, Cordehia, lmogen, Portia, Isabella—we might exhaust the reader's patience ere the list was completed: and yet we are to believe that he, whose mind so dwelt upon these exquisite creations, had been cheated into a marriage with a cunning woman much older than himself and was fain to flee away 'from the humiliation of domestic feuds' into disreputable company in London.  Few men whose hearth has been the seat of daily bitterness dwell with much complacency on scenes of domestic love; and few poets whose bright vision of youth has been rudely scattered by the unexpected tempest have cared to call up that bright vision again.  Not so our Shakespeare; he is the poet of the domestic affections; and when we contemplate his many pictures of wifely excellence, is it altogether extravagant to believe that he drew from life?

    From the Stratford register of baptisms, we learn that Shakespeare's eldest child, Susanna, was born in May, 1583; and in February, 1585, a son and daughter, twins, Hamnet and Judith.  No entry referring to Shakespeare or his family occurs after these for many years.  Thus, ere he became of age, our great poet was the father of three children, and doubtless it was about this time that he contemplated his journey to London.  We cannot see any reason for believing that he fled disgracefully away from his native town, either from unwillingness to support his family, or because, as a very apocryphal tradition reports, he fell under the displeasure of the powerful knight of Charlcote for stealing his deer; for in after years 'Master Shakespeare' was always looked upon with respect by his fellow-townsmen, termed 'oure goode frende,' and recognized quite as 'a gentleman of worship when, in his prosperous middle age, he returned again to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was not as the poet of whom all Eugland might well be proud—for of this the worthy burgesses had probably no idea—but as the thrifty, successful, and upright man of business, whose prosperity was a credit to them all, that they welcomed him.  Surely it was misfortune, not disgrace, that drove the young husband and father so far away.  A wife and three little children looked to the young man of twenty for bread, and the greatest of England's poets thought it no scorn to set forth and work hard to maintain them.  With his marvellous dramatic genius, what calling could be so suitable as that of player and playwright; and, as we shall ere long find, what other calling would be so remunerative?  It was probably in 1585 or 1586 that Shakespeare quitted Stratford.  In the latter year we find the players were there, and about that time 'the Earl of Leicester's servants' visited the town.  To them he probably attached himself; for Burbage, in whose company we afterwards find him, was the manager; and he, as well as some of the others, were Warwickshire men.

    There was much in the London of Elizabeth's days to attract the eye of the young poet, as well as to awaken his deepest interest; for the ancient city still boasted those beautiful structures which were her pride in the middle ages—those noble halls of her civic guilds, with carved roof and sunny oriel, rainbow-tinted with the proud blazonry of her merchant princes; and all the fine old churches with their pinnacled towers and spires of fairy fretwork, and the long lines of picturesque houses, with their quaintly decorated gables.  And then the beautiful river, rolling its ample current, silver clear, as his own unpolluted Avon, and still displaying those flocks of swans which challenged the admiration of the Venetian ambassador a hundred years before; and the stately gardens which now, from the Temple to Whitehall, stretched to the water's edge.  And much was there in London habits and ways to interest the great painter of men in all ages.  Every rank, every class, had here its representative; every vice, every virtue, every combination of character in those stirring times; and face to face with these stood mighty interests claiming the national mind with stern and commanding force.  The times were too earnest for aught of trifling, and men set about their mere ordinary business, their very amusements 'with a will,' as they quaintly phrased it; and thus the salient points of each character were brought out with a force and a vividness, which we, in a day of stereotyped mannerism, can but faintly apprehend.  Strange blunders are still made about this reign of Elizabeth, although, thanks to the reprints, and frequent publication of contemporary documents, we are beginning more truly to estimate it.  But an age which for forty years maintained single-handed the great battle of the reformed faith against all Catholic Europe, which defied the mightiest power ever arrayed against us, and saw the proudest armament dashed helplessly to ruin on our coasts—an age in which the spirit of discovery went forth to the uttermost parts of the earth, which bequeathed to us our one only school of music, and a wealth of literature still unsurpassed, is an era well worthy our deepest study.

    It was just at the most stirring period of this most stirring age that Shakespeare found himself in London.  There were many sights then to be seen in these picturesque old streets.  The long procession, when amid the tears of all London—of the whole land—Sir Philip Sidney was borne to his grave in old St. Paul's; and then the blazing bonfires, and joyful psalm-singing and tables set in the streets to which all comers were welcome, when the discovery of Babington's plot filled all hearts with gladness; and then the sterner joy, when London was awakened from midnight slumber, and every bell of her many churches rung out, at the news that the 'false Duessa'— enemy far more dangerous to England than to the queen,— was at length headless.  And then followed 'the Armada year,' as it was long after called; and can we doubt that in all the eager and anxious excitement of the spring and summer, Shakespeare participated—he, whose inmost heart was so thoroughly English; he, who in his 'King John' has enshrined so many bursts of the noblest patriotism?  Like the rest of his plays, it is very uncertain when 'King John' was written; it has always ranked among his earliest compositions; and we think no one can read its magnificent outbursts of proud national feeling without believing that it was when this 'isle set in the silver sea' was menaced by the mighty Armada, the as yet unknown dramatist summoned his fellow-countrymen to the rescue in these noble lines —

"England hath never yet, and never shall
 Lie at the proud feet of a conqueror.
 Come the three corners of the world in arms,
 And we shall shock them.   Nought shall make us rue,
 If England to herself do prove but true."

What more fitting motto could we take than these lines for the story of the defeated Armada?

    We have remarked that Shakespeare most probably joined Burbage's company—a band of players, who, strollers during part of the year, occupied, during the greater part, the playhouse at Blackfriars—a substantial building, erected by Burbage in 1574, under the express sanction of the Earl of Leicester.  This Blackfriars Theatre was, for some years, a constant source of annoyance to the city authorities, and hence writers have hastily concluded that the calling of the actor was in Elizabeth's days, as it certainly was at the Restoration, disreputable.  This view, like many others, has arisen simply from ignorance of our ancient municipal arrangements.  As we have before remarked, each company of players was under the protection of some nobleman; and under his sanction they claimed to set up their stage, and enact 'playes and enterludes.'  On their journeys into the country, they seem to have treated the 'worshipful mayors' and other civic authorities with some show of respect; although we fear this was rather in hopes of the handsome largesse they expected to receive than from any abstract feeling of honour due to them; but in London the players seem to have considered themselves in the right of their protectors as entitled to Court privileges.  London was no common city; she claimed to be and the claim was allowed, an imperium in imperio.  The king's warrant, although verified by the huge hanging seal, was mere waste parchment within Temple Bar, for 'lyke and after the manner of olde Troye' — and the crown lawyers, even of the Tudor dynasty, bowed to the apocryphal authority — the regal city had the right to maintain unlimited jurisdiction over all within her walls and liberties.  Such were the century chartered rights of old London.  Should certain tradesmen then, be confined to certain localities, should the handicraftsman ply his calling only under such restrictions as the corporation might impose, and should men belonging to none of the City companies, not even free of the City, summon crowds together, merely because they claimed the patronage of the Earl of Leicester, or even of the Lord Chamberlain?  Hence arose a series of annoying squables; and in proud defiance of the Court, the City imposed every possible restriction on the players; while the players, from time to time, 'showed up' these aldermen who had most harassed them in their plays, and sometimes in scoffing ballads.  A comparison of his plays with those of contemporary playwriters will prove how far above all these little spites was our greatest dramatist.

    Similar misapprehension of the usages of these times has led to the opinion that the status of the actor was still low and disreputable.  Now, in Shakespeare's days, acting had only just been recognized as a separate profession.  Men were living who could well recollect the plays performed by the trades' guilds, and dramatic performances in which they themselves had taken part.  It was the eager thirst of a rapidly advancing age for information that seems to have led to the establishment of the earliest English theatres.  Great was the popular thirst for historical knowledge, and very interesting is it to mark how largely the early drama supplied that want.  A simple thing was a dramatic performance in the reign of Elizabeth— little beyond bare recitation, but appealing far more to the mind and heart of an imaginative age than the melodramatic shows and elaborate machinery of modern times.  And never did our forefathers seem tired of witnessing these plays.  When a new historical drama appeared, it was sometimes performed six and eight times in the course of the day — especially if on a subject connected with English, or with almost contemporaneous history.  Thus the blood of the horrible slaughter at Paris in 1572 had scarcely dried, ere the massacre of Paris appeared in a dramatic form on the stage; and scarcely had the welcome news of the death of hated Guise arrived, ere that fierce, reckless evildoer, conspicuous with his well-known crimson plume, appeared before the well-pleased audience, and received the death-bullet amid their excited shouts.  Thus the theatre was viewed, and not unwisely then, as a great school for the people.

    From the character of these plays, it is evident that low, uneducated men, could not supply them; and thus we find the majority of writers, most of whom were also actors, were scholars — university-men, who wrote M.A. after their names, and some of whom had contemplated taking orders.  Many of these, as we find from the Shakespeare Society's, and Alleyn's papers, were needy and struggling indeed, but, with very few exceptions, they seem to have been respectable, family men.  The correspondence of Edward Alleyne (the founder of Dulwich College), and his good wife, Joan, affords, indeed, as pleasant specimens of domestic affection and homely kindliness as we can well find; and that the profligacy of Marlowe, and Green's cruel desertion of his wife and child, should have been so severely reprehended by their brother dramatists, is proof that as a class, they were honorable men.  We may also here incidentally remark, that the utter absence of women from the stage was at that early period of the acted drama most beneficial in a moral point of view.

    We have remarked that probably about the year 1585 Shakespeare came to London.  Would that we could obtain a glimpse, however faint, of how his first years were passed.  That he became actor, and was soon after employed in altering or adapting plays for the stage, and, ere long, in writing new ones, we learn on good authority.  That his gains were small, and perhaps very precarious, is likely enough; and that during this period, therefore, many of his sonnets were written, seems to us most probable.  From the many curious traits of society which the 'Shakespeare Society's' publications supply to us, we learn that nothing was more common than for the poorly-paid dramatists to add to their slender income by writing, what prosing Antony à Wood calls 'trite things,' by which he designates short pieces of poetry, which were then in very general request for almost every occurrence of domestic life.  Most emphatically was the age of Elizabeth a poetical age.  The influence of verse was potent everywhere, from the first noble of the land, who paid down so willingly unthought-of gold pieces, that the praises of Oriana 'might be sung in choicest verse, to 'Tom Butcher,' who actually wept as the rude ballad of 'Troy Town' was told him.  And thus each birthday brought its tribute of verse; each present was duly accompanied by 'choice poetry,' written in the' fine Italian hand,' and the farewell to the friend, and the welcome that greeted his return were alike in rhyme.  Now, for these purposes, the sonnet was most frequently used; and we think we could point to a score or two of Shakespeare's, which seem to us obviously intended to accompany presents, or to express friendly or amatory feeling.  Indeed, for every kind of votive offering, the sonnet seems to have almost superseded every other kind of poem.  Dedications to patrons, prologues to plays, letters, even dramatic speeches, are frequently regular sonnets.  In Kyd's' Cornelia' (1580-2), Cicero replies to the heroine in a really fine sonnet, and the reader may be reminded that one in the Shakespeare series made its previous appearance in one of his earliest plays, 'Love's Labour Lost.'  Now, what is more likely than that Shakespeare, by writing such little pieces, blamelessly added to an income, as yet slender indeed?

    On his first arrival, Shakespeare was doubtless alone and amidst all the stir and excitement of London scenes, would not his thoughts often dwell upon the pleasant cottage at Shottery, and Anne, with the twins on her knee, and little Susanna nestling close beside her?  And then, might not that loveliest of his sonnets have been poured forth in unpremeditated sweetness?

'When in disgrace with Fortune, and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
Haply I think on thee, — and then my state.
Like the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate,
    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.' [4]

    We allow that our view of this beautiful sonnet is conjectural, but as thoroughly conjectural is the theory that Shakespeare fell into the toils of a bold bad woman, and proclaimed his disgrace in a series of sonnets.  Surely the feelings expressed in this are far more in character with what we really know of the dramatist who, though so young, achieved, in three or four short years, a high standing among his brethren, and a share in the Blackfriars Theatre, and then went on in prosperity and honour, even to his death, and far more so than is the other disgraceful view.

    It is not until November, 1589, that we again meet with a direct notice of Shakespeare, but then we find charges were made against the London companies of 'meddling on the stage with matters of state and religion,' and in a document signed by sixteen shareholders 'in the Blackfryers play-house,' among whom Shakespeare is the twelfth, they declare they 'have never given cause of displeasure in that they have brought into their playes maters of state or religion unfitt to he handled by them, or to be presented before lewd spectators.'  As the company continued playing, the charges were, doubtless, unsupported.  This document in respect to Shakespeare's religion, is however very suggestive; for at this time the persecution so bitterly carried on by Whitgift against the stricter separatists was commencing.  There was, therefore, probably much plain speaking at the Blackfriars' house; for the actors, true to their traditional low-church views, were always, during the reign of Elizabeth, ready to attack High Church pretentions, sure of meeting a hearty response from the well-pleased audience.

    We think that Shakespeare, as soon as comfortably settled in London, brought his wife and family thither.  We have no direct proof that he did so, it is true; but, looking at domestic life in the reign of Elizabeth, we know it would it have been impossible for him to have maintained a respectable standing, unless he had dwelt as a 'householder,' surrounded by his family.  In the present day, we have little notion of the prestige attached in these days to that homely name.  In the simple domestic arrangements of our forefathers, lodgings, boarding-houses, chambers (in the modern sense we mean), were wholly unknown, and to keep house himself, or to sit at his father's table among the younger children, or dwell as 'hired servant' with the master to whom he had served his apprenticeship, were the only alternatives offered to the young man in these times.  Society recognized only 'the family;' and for every one dwelling under the same roof the 'householder' was responsible; and strict was the superintendence exercised by municipal and parochial authorities over him, and proportionably vigilant was his care expected to be.  These remarks are not unnecessary; for the fact that we find most of our early dramatists householders, proves that they were certainly a far different class from the strolling vagabonds with whom they have often been compared.

    The first notices we obtain of Shakespeare as a dramatist are but slight.  Spenser's allusion, in his 'Tears of the Muses' to 'Our pleasant Willie,' has been supposed to refer to him; and also an allusion of Gabriel Harvey's somewhat later; but the first undoubted reference to him, and by a brother dramatist, is certainly that abusive passage in Green's 'Groat's Worth of Wit' bought with a Million of Repentance.'  Green, the writer of some really fine plays, died, after a sad course of profligacy, in 1592, and in the above-named tract he bequeaths a warning to his reckless companions to avoid his vices, and follow more diligently their literary calling.  Under the latter head, the poor dying man, probably chafing under some pecuniary disappoinment, warns his brethren to beware of 'an upstart crow, beautified in our feathers, that with his “Tyger's” heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as 'well, able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit, the only Shake scene in a country.'  This allusion was plain enough, and Shakespeare very naturally complained; so a few weeks after, Henry Chettle, by whom the posthumous tract had been published, very courteously apologized in a tract entitled 'Kinde Heart's Dream,' declaring that he is 'as sorry as if the original fault had been mine; because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil, than he, excellent in the quality he professes.  Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetions grace in writing that approves his art.'  An important testimony this, both to the superior gifts of Shakespeare, and to his unblemished moral character.

    It is probable that many of Shakespeare's earlier plays were written between 1585 and 1593.  Some of the historical — those of 'Henry VI.,' the three parts, probably 'Henry lV.,' and we cannot but add 'King John.'  'Love's Labour Lost,' also, and the 'Two Gentlemen of Verona,' belong to this period, to which Mr. Charles Knight would also refer the first sketch of 'Hamlet' and that of 'Romeo and Juliet.' During 1592 and 1593, England was severely visited by the plague, and the theatres were shut.  Probably it was this temporary suspension of his ordinary calling that induced Shakespeare to turn his attention to what would then be considered as a higher order of literature — the narrative poem; and thus we find he was engaged upon his 'Venus and Adonis,' which, early in 1593, was published with the well-known dedication to Lord Southampton.  This poem we find was received with great favour both by his patron and the public, and the following year saw the publication of his second poem, 'Lucrece.'  That Southampton, for either of these poems, should have bestowed on Shakespeare, as Rowe tells us, the extravagant sum of £1,000, when money was nearly fourfold its present value, is not to be believed; but that the well-pleased young earl paid him 'right royally' we can willingly allow; and this acquires additional corroboration from the fact that Shakespeare, early in 1594, joined with Burbage in the proprietorship of the newly-built 'Globe on the Bank-side.'

    We have no authentic information as to the introduction of Shakespeare to his liberal patron.  It was probably through Sir Thomas Heneage, who had married Southampton's mother, and who, as Treasurer of the Chamber, would be brought into frequent intercourse with the Lord Chamberlain's players.  We think it very probable that the sonnets which Shakespeare addressed to Southampton might be written at the suggestion of the father-in-law, apprehensive of the dangers which must surround a young, wealthy, and impulsive noble, just entering upon court-life, and naturally most anxious to see him suitably married.  With Mr. Gerald Massey, we think that they were written after the 'Venus and Adonis.'

    Meanwhile John Shakespeare, now advancing in years, seems still to have been under difficulties at Stratford.  There appears no reason to doubt that his gifted son aided him to the best of his power, for we know that in his rising fortunes the father amply participated.  But these were the early days of his career, so the father still struggled on with poverty.  One document, however, which at first sight seems to prove this, will bear, we think, a far more important signification.  This is a return, dated September, 1592, containing the names of 'all such recusants as have been heretofore presented for not coming monthly to church, and yet are thought to forbear the church, for debt or fear of process, or for some other worse faults, &c.'  The names of six women and nine men are given, including that of 'John Shakespeare,' and opposite is written, 'It is said these last nine come not to church for fear of process for debt.'  This might be likely enough; but another document shows that John Shakespeare only the month before had been engaged in the good town of Stratford in making inventories.  Religions opinions were, therefore, doubtless the cause, and their fellow-townsmen, among whom these nine suspected 'recusants' dwelt, kindly interposing between them and the harsh penalty of the law, preferred the plea 'fear of process for debt.'  Doubtless John Shakespeare was a Catholic, argues Malone, and even Mr. Collier.  Now, if we look at the date of this return, we shall find that it is made in the autumn of the very year, 1592, in which the act passed, 'For the punishment of persons obstinately refusing to come to church, and persuading others to impugn the Queen's authority in ecclesiastical causes;' an act expressly directed against Puritanism, and which, as the reader may perhaps remember, caused so much unwelcome free speaking in the House of Commons, and led to the imprisonment of poor Mr. Attorney Morrice.  This act was brought in under the express direction of Whitgift, furious at the spread of Puritan views, and especially at the wide circulation of the 'Martin Mar Prelate' tracts.  As there were now numerous separatists in the Midland counties, and as several of these tracts had been printed at Coventry, we learn from many contemporary sources, that the inquiry after those, who, as the act farther recites, were present at any unlawful assembly, or conventicle, or meeting, under colour of any exercise of religion,' was very severe.  We have little doubt that the term 'recusant' misled Malone and Mr. Collier, but from the time of the rise of Puritanism, especially of the stricter separatists, we shall find 'recusant' used to signify these latter, and Papists designated as 'Popish recusants.'  Stratford-upon-Avon, indeed, was most favourably situated in regard to Puritanism.  Warwick, where the great Puritan leader Cartwright dwelt; Banbury, already famous for its preachers and psalm-singing weavers; Coventry, where Waldegrave almost openly printed some of the most violent Mar Prelate tracts, were all within a pleasant walk of some ten or twelve miles; while the lord of Warwick Castle, Fulke Greville, the early friend of Sidney, was looked up to as the great protector of the persecuted sect.  Doubtless John Shakespeare was a 'recusant,' but not a 'Popish recusant.'

    These proceedings took place about the close of the year 1592.  John Shakespeare's gifted son was from thenceforward steadily advancing, and as we find no further notice of the father's pecuniary difficulties, we have no doubt that the son made ample provision for the old man.  There seems every reason to believe that Shakespeare's wife and children were still resident with him in London, for, soon after, he is represented as a householder in Bishopsgate, near St. Helen's, and subsequently at Bankside; for, as we have before pointed out, none but a 'family man' could become a householder.  With his rising fortunes, Shakespeare evidently desired, like Sir Walter Scott, to become the founder of a family; and this is doubtless why only four years after his appearance as a needy man, we find John Shakespeare strangely applying to the Heralds' College for a grant of arms!  That this was on account of his son is evident for the son, as an actor, could not write himself 'gentleman;'—but John Shakespeare had been high bailiff of his native town.  The importance of this fact is, however, in the additional proof it affords that Shakespeare's father could never have been suspected of 'Papistry: With Puritanism the Heralds' College had nothing to do; but the Popish faith was the proscribed religion, and bold must that recusant have been to challenge that rigid inquiry into his family and circumstances, which the grant of armorial bearings would involve.

    In the course of the following year these arms were granted, the 'bend sable charged with a spear,' on its golden field.  But it was with a crushed heart that Shakespeare would contemplate them; for the great sorrow of his life had then fallen upon him.  In August, 1596, his only boy, Hamnet, died, at the age of almost twelve years.  We have no particulars, save the record in the Stratford register; (for he was probably taken down to his native place to die;) nor has Shakespeare left any memorial of this sad loss.  And yet we are to believe that, not content with forming a disgraceful attachment to a married woman, he must needs parade it before his friends in a series of sonnets!  Ben Jonson, far more rugged than 'gentle Shakespeare,' wrote a tender epitaph on his infant daughter Mary, and mourned in sweet and saddest verse the death of his darling boy, when seven years old; but a heavier bereavement visited Shakespeare, and yet he who, we are told, unveiled his inmost heart in his sonnets, left that blameless sorrow unsung.

    But with the loss of that child, whom he had, doubtless, looked upon so proudly as his heir, Shakespeare did not waywardly give up all interest in the future.  The following year, we find him purchasing one of the best houses in Stratford, and forthwith causing it to be put in complete repair, for the future residence of his family.  He had still two daughters, Susanna, now fourteen, and Judith, the twin sister of his lost Hamnet.  And then there was the wife.  Was she the well-pleased sharer of his increasing wealth and honours; or the burden of which he would willingly be rid, and whose very existence he recognized in his 'last will and testament' merely by the interpolated bequest of 'my second best bed, with the furniture'?  Now, when we bear in mind that the only records we have of Anne Hathaway are her marriage bond, the register of the births of her children, and then the notice in the will, followed seven years after by the entry of her death, we shall really find that, excepting the strange bequest, there is nothing at all to disprove the belief that Shakespeare and his wife may have lived most happily together.

    In the epitaph, evidently placed by her elder daughter on her tomb, and probably written by the husband, Dr. Hall, she is spoken of, not in terms of inflated eulogy, not in any of the 'stock phrases' of the Latin epitaph, but as the gentle, pious, affectionate mother, whom the daughter, although a middle-aged woman, most lovingly mourns over. [5] 'My mother, thou gavest me life and milk from thy bosom. Woe to me! for such gifts I can only offer a stone.' But still she rejoices in the hope that the stone at our Lord's coming will be rolled away, then 'let the tomb remain closed, for my mother seeks the skies.'  Now, can we believe that a daughter with such feelings would coolly take possession of house and furniture, 'plate, jewels, and household stuffe whatsoever,' while the real mistress of the house, her own mother, was thrust into some neglected corner with her 'second best bed'?  It is important to bear in mind here, that views of the rights of 'mistress of the family,' were very high in Shakespeare's day, and that one of the most fruitful sources of conjugal bickering was interference with the wife in her household management.  To 'rule the household,' to have sole possession of 'the keys,' was conceded as her right, even by the bitterest opponents of feminine sway; to have ignored his wife, therefore, during his lifetime, and to have 'cut her off in his will with an old bed,' would have aroused the fury of every old woman in Stratford, and covered the name of Shakespeare with disgrace.

    It has often appeared strange to us, that what seems a very obvious reason for Shakespeare's conduct has never occurred to his biographers.  It is, that Anne, soon after her marriage, became an invalid, and, probably ere his death, bedridden.  In those days of imperfect sanitary arrangements, frequent were the instances of even young people stricken down by palsy, or disabled by chronic rheumatism; and when we are told that the house Shakespeare occupied about this time was at Bankside, we cannot wonder if severe illness visited his family.  What, then, more likely than that Shakespeare hastened his departure from London, hastened the extensive repairs at New Place, that in her native air, and surrounded by her relatives and friends, his wife might find her best chance of recovery?  Surely this view suits better with the character of 'gentle Shakespeare,' as given by every contemporary.  But Anne probably continued a helpless invalid; and then, how natural that the elder daughter should take the government of the household—still, after her marriage, residing, under her father's roof, and becoming executrix to his will, just as her mother would had she not been disabled.  And as to specific bequests.  What heeded the invalid—perhaps bed-ridden— 'jewels and plate'?  The 'second best bed' was more important; and we cannot but think that deep affection dictated that interpolation which has hitherto seemed unfeeling.  Beds, during the middle ages, and throughout this century, were the most important articles of household furniture, for they were richly carved, and most expensively fitted.  They were always specially bequeathed, and in the minute description of the 'furniture,' which always included 'head-cloth and tester, four curtains, and counterpane,' mostly of silk or damask, together with the ample bedding and 'holland sheets,' all most expensive, we perceive how valuable such bequests were.  The 'best bed'—which, indeed, like most best things, was rather for show than use—was, as Mr. Charles Knight has pointed out, mostly an 'heirloom,' and as such not bequeathable; but the second best was that of the master and mistress.  It was, therefore, Anne's own accustomed bed; and with a feeling akin to that of his daughter, who laments that for all her mother's love, she can give her only a tomb, might not Shakespeare insert that clause in his will 'which bequeaths to the wife the only gift of any use in her helpless state, her bed? The view, we have here taken we allow is conjectural, but if the chance key be found to fit each ward, it would be unwise to reject it.

    Shakespeare's connection with his native town seems now to become closer.  Abram Sturley, a Stratford alderman, towards the close of the year 1597, requests his brother-in-law, then in London, to inquire' whether our countryman, Mr. Shakespeare, is willing to invest money in farming the tithes of Stratford;' he also again writes that he thinks Shakespeare would be very likely to 'accommodate them with a loan.'  The brother-in-law, Richard Quiney, meanwhile writes, 'to my loving goode frende and countryman, Mr. Win. Shackespere,' earnestly requesting your helpe with £30.'  This letter, as well as Sturley's, is very suggestive, inasmuch as from the phraseology used in both, the writers are evidently Puritans. Sturley addresses Quiney, 'Most loving and beloved in the Lord,' while Quiney closes his letter to the actor and playhouse proprietor with 'the Lord be with you, and with us all, Amen.'  Such phraseology would never have been addressed to Ben Jonson, would scarcely have been addressed to Shakespeare, had the writer thought him averse to Puritan phraseology, or unaccustomed to its use; for when men go borrowing they are, of course, most anxious not to give offence.  It is most probable that Quiney obtained his request, for we subsequently find Shakespeare on friendly terms with him, and eighteen years after Quiney's son marries Shakespeare's younger daughter.

    In the following year, 1598, the first printed recognition of Shakespeare's varied skill in poetry appears, and is important as proving the high rank he then held among writers.  This is in Meeres' 'Palladis Tamia: Wits' Treasury,' which consists of a very curious collection of extracts, on all subjects, from various authors.  Thrown into the work, without much connection with it, is 'a comparative discourse,' offering criticisms upon different contemporary writers; and in this, as Mr. Masson by careful search found, Shakespeare is noticed five times under different heads.  First, generally, and then specially, as among the best English lyric poets, the best English tragic dramatists, the best English comic dramatists, and the best English elegiac poets.  The 'Discourse,' while important as giving us the names of Shakespeare's known plays — for none had as yet been published with his name — is most valuable, as supplying us with the first hint respecting his sonnets.  'As the soul of Euphorbus,' says he, 'was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet, witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare: witness his “Venus and Adonis,” his “Lucrece,” his sugared sonnets among his private friends.'  We think the term 'private friends' here refers to the sonnets being circulated among his friends in manuscript, rather than their being addressed to private friends.  Unfortunately Meeres supplies no hint whereby we might learn how many, and which of these sonnets were then in circulation.  Thus much is certain, that Shakespeare was already known and admired for his sonnets, and that neither he nor his friends felt there was aught in them that needed palliation or excuse.  It is curious, as the same writer remarks, that immediately after Meeres' very laudatory mention of him, Shakespeare's name first appears on the title-page of one of his plays, 'Love's Labour Lost,' and from henceforth, those which had been published anonymously were printed with his name.

    Meanwhile repairs went on at New Place, although Shakespeare does not seem to have wholly resided there till some time later.  Some of the entries which refer to him are very homely.  Thus, a load of stone is purchased of him, for which 10d. is paid; an inquiry is made as to the quantity of 'corn and malte' possessed by the chief inhabitants, and Shakespeare is returned as having ten quarters.  He also seems to have still done a little in money-lending.  Truly, our great dramatist was neither idle nor unthrifty.  His singular business habits have been frequently remarked, and much surprise has been expressed by some writers how the most powerful of dramatists, the sweetest of poets, should have 'condescended!' to things of every-day life.  Now the case really is, that we may find many parallels—some in very recent times.  The writer of this article was told, on the best possible authority, that the poet who sang the 'little lowly celadine,' and so felt 'the witchery of the clear blue sky,' was as thorough a man of business as any one in London.  The ease with which he would run over a long account, the quickness with which he would detect a mistake, would have done honour to the sharpest bookseller 'in the Row.'

    Shakespeare was now high, both in literary fame and in 'worship,' among his townsmen.  In 1599 and 1600 many of his plays were published—all with his name—and also that well-known collection of small poems, the 'Passionate Pilgrim;' while in 1602, in a deed of purchase of land, as he is styled 'William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon,' we perceive that, although not wholly retired from the stage, he now looked upon New Place as his home.  John Shakespeare ended his long life in 1601, apparently under his son's roof, and the mother in 1605.  It was in the comparative retirement of Stratford that Shakespeare's latest, and some of his finest tragedies were produced.  'Lear,' ' Othello,' probably 'Macbeth' — although this was not published in his lifetime—and, among others, those delighful plays, 'As you Like It,' 'Twelfth Night,' and 'The Tempest.'  In 1607, we find his eldest daughter married to 'John Hall, gentleman, physician.'  In that age of early marriages, it seems strange that the daughter of a really wealthy man should not have married until she had reached the age of twenty-four.  Now the helpless state of her mother would supply a reason; for the affectionate daughter would he unwilling to leave her.  And thus we find that the Halls resided at New Place, and Shakespeare takes Dr. Hall with him on his visits to London, as though he had been his own son.  Every glimpse we obtain of Shakespeare after his return to Stratford exhibits him as a worthy family man.

    In the year 1609, a neat little quarto was published by Thomas Thorpe, simply entitled, 'Shakespeare's Sonnets.'  As the reader knows, they were published without Shakespeare's sanction; and how they came before the world, and who 'the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H.' really was, have been fruitful sources of controversy.  Mr. Gerald Massey considers William Herbert to have been the 'Mr. W. H.,' but he was never 'Mr. W. H.'; he was first Lord Herbert, and then Earl of Pembroke; nor were noblemen in those days willing to masejuerade as 'plain Misters.' Indeed, the notion that Southampton, Pembroke, Lady Rich, and Lady Southampton could be called, under any circumstances, Shakespeare's 'private friends,' argues an utter ignorance of society in his days.  The 'private friends' seem to us to mean those friends among whom copies had circulated, and from whom 'Mr. W. H.'—whoever he might be—had obtained them.  The book was published, and all these sonnets, in which Mr. Armitage Brown, more than two hundred years after, discovered so disgraceful a history, were exhibited to the world.  But we do not find Shakespeare taking any notice; surely the great dramatist thought that in his sonnets, as in his plays, he might represent scenes and characters with which he had no sympathy.  Singularly enough, two years before 'Lear' had been published, and a few months previous to the sonnets, a second edition, which bore the unusual title, 'Mr. William Shakespeare: His true Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear.'  It was, therefore, evidently very popular.  Now, the reader will recollect that in this play the horrible scene of blinding the Earl of Glo'ster occurs.  Glo'ster had been guilty of the same sin, which, we are told on the mere testimony of the sonnets, Shakespeare committed.  'The Gods are just,' says Edgar, 'and of our pleasant vices

'Make instruments to scourge us.'

But had Shakespeare been scourged?  Can we believe that he would have dared to point thus to the vengeance of Heaven, had he been the breaker of his marriage vow, even as Glo'ster?

    We really can see no other solution to this 'much vexed question' than what has been called 'the dramatic view:' that the sonnets are a collection of poems, some addressed to Lord Southampton, some struck off in the mere exercise of fancy,— perhaps intended for insertion in his plays,—many 'written to order,' but not the less beautiful on that account; and Meeres' phrase, ' sugared sonnets,' is suitable enough.  The exquisite sweetness, both of thought and diction, abundantly warrants this phrase, while those that hint at a darker story, if viewed also as mere exercises of skill—perhaps they are fragments of an unfinished tragic poem—most forcibly bring out to our view that wide and marvellous range of imagination which, while it has charmed us with an Imogen, a Perdita, a 'little dainty Ariel,' has appalled us with a Lady Macbeth and an Ingo.

    Shakespeare's last days seem to have been spent in the bosom of a happy family.  His regard to his eldest daughter and her husband is forcibly shown in his will.  His younger daughter Judith, of whom there are few records, did not marry until two months before her father's death; and Thomas Quiney, son to the Puritan Richard Quiney before mentioned, became her husband.  There seems great reason to believe that both Shakespeare's daughters were Puritans, and the singular entry in the accounts of the chamberlain of Stratford in 1614, 'Item, for one quart of sack, and one quart of clarett winne, given to a preacher at the Newe Place XXd,' proves that Puritan ministers were accustomed to visit Shakespeare's family—an incidental corroboration this of our belief that his wife was a helpless invalid.  In Puritan memoirs we find frequent instances of ministers, especially while 'silenced,' going on pastoral visits among those of their friends who, from age or sickness, were unable to avail themselves of their public ministrations.  The present of the wine shows that the corporation were favourable to Puritanism, but we think it was purchased rather on the occasion of a sermon being preached before the high bailiff and aldermen, when wine and cakes were always provided, than as a gift.  Surely the owner of New Place would himself supply his guest with wine.

    We have little information respecting the last years of Shakespeare's life, save that they were prosperous and honoured.  Although no longer -personally connected with the stage, he still continued to write for it; and his fine plays on Roman history, and his 'Timon of Athens,' belong to this his latest period.  It is a great error to suppose that the early Puritans denounced Shakespeare. Milton, among his earliest poems, has inscribed a most laudatory one to his memory; and we have found quotations from his works in many religious treatises.  It was not until some twenty or thirty years after, and then, probably, irritated by Ben Jonson's rabid abuse, the Puritans denounced 'stage plays,' and among them those of a poet who never made a mock at religion, never wrote a syllable against them.  It were greatly to be wished that some additional information respecting our chief poet might be found; meanwhile, rejoiced should we be if these remarks might do some service in rescuing his memory from the unmerited charges so recklessly cast upon it, and aid in proving that in his domestic relations, the 'gentle Shakespeare,' like the knight of chivalrous romance, was not only above reproach, but beyond suspicion.

____________________

Footnotes.

[1.]    It may be asked, How came so important a branch of instruction to have been thus neglected? We think the chief reason will be found in the great expense of writing materials. Ink was expensive, while parchment, and the thick paper sometimes used instead, were far too dear to be blotted and blurred by careless schoolboys, for slates and slate-pencils belong to a later age, and the black board and chalk only to our own. There was also comparatively little need for penmanship among the masses in those days of ready money dealings and seldom journeying. And thus, if writing were considered necessary for the scholar, his friends bore the extra expense; if he were intended for the law, then of course instructions in that most unintelligible of handwriting, 'court hand,' formed part of his legal education, while, if he aimed to become one of the merchant princes of those golden days of early commerce, he sought the aid of a professed writing master, and at no small cost of money and time, became initiated into 'the noble art of caligraphy,' and achieved 'the fine Italian hand,' together with Italian book-keeping, perhaps even emulated those wondrous birds and fishes which the pen of the ancient writing-master so delighted to form. This explanation is scarcely needless, for Shakespeare himself, judging from his autographs, seems to have written a sad scrawl. Indeed, we can fancy some duly certified pupil teacher' showing up our great poet's signature to his marvelling class as proof of the incalculable superiority of himself, and of the nineteenth century.

[2.]    It is curious to observe through how many generations this objection to the sign of the cross continued.  We met the other day with a legal document which belonged to an English Presbyterian minister in the reign of Anne.  This is duly witnessed by two; the first witness signs his name at length, but the second, apparently the domestic servant, makes her mark, and this is not the obnoxious sign of 'blind papistry,' but a marvelously ill-formed round O.

[3.]    Even in Shakespeare's will Hamnet is spelt Hamlet, while in various documents we find his father's name spelt 'Shagaper,' and even 'Shaxberd.'  In the midland counties, Agnes is pronounced Annis, and this might easily be converted in common use into Anne.

[4.]    That this sonnet was written for Lord Southampton, as Mr. Gerald Massey supposes, cannot be maintained; for how could a wealthy nobleman, although under a temporary cloud at Court, characterize himself as 'outcast'?  What could he have to do with 'this man's art, and that man's scope'? —thoughts natural enough to the striving writer and actor.  Besides, would an earl, lofty himself in station and accustomed to courts, be likely to think so highly of 'the state of kings'?

[5.]

'Ubera tu, mater, te lac vitamque dedisti:
Vae mihi; pro tanto munere saxa dabo.
Quam mallem amoveat lapidem bonus angelus ore,
Exeat (ut) Christi corpus, imago tua?
Sed nil vota valent: venias cito, Christe, resurget,
Clausa licet tumulo; mater, et astra petet.'

 



[Home] [Up] [Biography] [Poetry] [Prose] [Reviews] [News Reports] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk