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Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

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I investigated it at great length. Finally I came to the conclusion
that Cyril Graham had been wrong in regarding the rival dramatist of
the 80th Sonnet as Chapman. It was obviously Marlowe who was
alluded to. At the time the Sonnets were written, such an
expression as 'the proud full sail of his great verse' could not
have been used of Chapman's work, however applicable it might have
been to the style of his later Jacobean plays. No: Marlowe was
clearly the rival dramatist of whom Shakespeare spoke in such
laudatory terms; and that

Affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,

was the Mephistopheles of his Doctor Faustus. No doubt, Marlowe was
fascinated by the beauty and grace of the boy-actor, and lured him
away from the Blackfriars Theatre, that he might play the Gaveston
of his Edward II. That Shakespeare had the legal right to retain
Willie Hughes in his own company is evident from Sonnet LXXXVII.,
where he says:-

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:
The CHARTER OF THY WORTH gives thee releasing;
My BONDS in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
Thyself thou gayest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

But him whom he could not hold by love, he would not hold by force.
Willie Hughes became a member of Lord Pembroke's company, and,
perhaps in the open yard of the Red Bull Tavern, played the part of
King Edward's delicate minion. On Marlowe's death, he seems to have
returned to Shakespeare, who, whatever his fellow-partners may have
thought of the matter, was not slow to forgive the wilfulness and
treachery of the young actor.

How well, too, had Shakespeare drawn the temperament of the stage-
player! Willie Hughes was one of those

That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone.

He could act love, but could not feel it, could mimic passion
without realising it.

In many's looks the false heart's history
Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange,

but with Willie Hughes it was not so. 'Heaven,' says Shakespeare,
in a sonnet of mad idolatry -

Heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate'er thy thoughts or thy heart's workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence but sweetness tell.

In his 'inconstant mind' and his 'false heart,' it was easy to
recognise the insincerity and treachery that somehow seem
inseparable from the artistic nature, as in his love of praise that
desire for immediate recognition that characterises all actors. And
yet, more fortunate in this than other actors, Willie Hughes was to
know something of immortality. Inseparably connected with
Shakespeare's plays, he was to live in them.

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.

There were endless allusions, also, to Willie Hughes's power over
his audience--the 'gazers,' as Shakespeare calls them; but perhaps
the most perfect description of his wonderful mastery over dramatic
art was in A Lover's Complaint, where Shakespeare says of him:-

In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to cautels, 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.

* * * * * * * *

So on the tip of his subduing tongue,
All kind 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.
He had the dialect and the different skill,
Catching all passions in his craft of will.

Once I thought that I had really found Willie Hughes in Elizabethan
literature. In a wonderfully graphic account of the last days of
the great Earl of Essex, his chaplain, Thomas Knell, tells us that
the night before the Earl died, 'he called William Hewes, which was
his musician, to play upon the virginals and to sing. "Play," said
he, "my song, Will Hewes, and I will sing it to myself." So he did
it most joyfully, not as the howling swan, which, still looking
down, waileth her end, but as a sweet lark, lifting up his hands and
casting up his eyes to his God, with this mounted the crystal skies,
and reached with his unwearied tongue the top of highest heavens.'
Surely the boy who played on the virginals to the dying father of
Sidney's Stella was none other but the Will Hews to whom Shakespeare
dedicated the Sonnets, and who he tells us was himself sweet 'music
to hear.' Yet Lord Essex died in 1576, when Shakespeare himself was
but twelve years of age. It was impossible that his musician could
have been the Mr. W. H. of the Sonnets. Perhaps Shakespeare's young
friend was the son of the player upon the virginals? It was at
least something to have discovered that Will Hews was an Elizabethan
name. Indeed the name Hews seemed to have been closely connected
with music and the stage. The first English actress was the lovely
Margaret Hews, whom Prince Rupert so madly loved. What more
probable than that between her and Lord Essex's musician had come
the boy-actor of Shakespeare's plays? But the proofs, the links--
where were they? Alas! I could not find them. It seemed to me that
I was always on the brink of absolute verification, but that I could
never really attain to it.

From Willie Hughes's life I soon passed to thoughts of his death. I
used to wonder what had been his end.

Perhaps he had been one of those English actors who in 1604 went
across sea to Germany and played before the great Duke Henry Julius
of Brunswick, himself a dramatist of no mean order, and at the Court
of that strange Elector of Brandenburg, who was so enamoured of
beauty that he was said to have bought for his weight in amber the
young son of a travelling Greek merchant, and to have given pageants
in honour of his slave all through that dreadful famine year of
1606-7, when the people died of hunger in the very streets of the
town, and for the space of seven months there was no rain. We know
at any rate that Romeo and Juliet was brought out at Dresden in
1613, along with Hamlet and King Lear, and it was surely to none
other than Willie Hughes that in 1615 the death-mask of Shakespeare
was brought by the hand of one of the suite of the English
ambassador, pale token of the passing away of the great poet who had
so dearly loved him. Indeed there would have been something
peculiarly fitting in the idea that the boy-actor, whose beauty had
been so vital an element in the realism and romance of Shakespeare's
art, should have been the first to have brought to Germany the seed
of the new culture, and was in his way the precursor of that
Aufklarung or Illumination of the eighteenth century, that splendid
movement which, though begun by Lessing and Herder, and brought to
its full and perfect issue by Goethe, was in no small part helped on
by another actor--Friedrich Schroeder--who awoke the popular
consciousness, and by means of the feigned passions and mimetic
methods of the stage showed the intimate, the vital, connection
between life and literature. If this was so--and there was
certainly no evidence against it--it was not improbable that Willie
Hughes was one of those English comedians (mimae quidam ex
Britannia, as the old chronicle calls them), who were slain at
Nuremberg in a sudden uprising of the people, and were secretly
buried in a little vineyard outside the city by some young men 'who
had found pleasure in their performances, and of whom some had
sought to be instructed in the mysteries of the new art.' Certainly
no more fitting place could there be for him to whom Shakespeare
said, 'thou art all my art,' than this little vineyard outside the
city walls. For was it not from the sorrows of Dionysos that
Tragedy sprang? Was not the light laughter of Comedy, with its
careless merriment and quick replies, first heard on the lips of the
Sicilian vine-dressers? Nay, did not the purple and red stain of
the wine-froth on face and limbs give the first suggestion of the
charm and fascination of disguise--the desire for self-concealment,
the sense of the value of objectivity thus showing itself in the
rude beginnings of the art? At any rate, wherever he lay--whether
in the little vineyard at the gate of the Gothic town, or in some
dim London churchyard amidst the roar and bustle of our great city--
no gorgeous monument marked his resting-place. His true tomb, as
Shakespeare saw, was the poet's verse, his true monument the
permanence of the drama. So had it been with others whose beauty
had given a new creative impulse to their age. The ivory body of
the Bithynian slave rots in the green ooze of the Nile, and on the
yellow hills of the Cerameicus is strewn the dust of the young
Athenian; but Antinous lives in sculpture, and Charmides in


After three weeks had elapsed, I determined to make a strong appeal
to Erskine to do justice to the memory of Cyril Graham, and to give
to the world his marvellous interpretation of the Sonnets--the only
interpretation that thoroughly explained the problem. I have not
any copy of my letter, I regret to say, nor have I been able to lay
my hand upon the original; but I remember that I went over the whole
ground, and covered sheets of paper with passionate reiteration of
the arguments and proofs that my study had suggested to me. It
seemed to me that I was not merely restoring Cyril Graham to his
proper place in literary history, but rescuing the honour of
Shakespeare himself from the tedious memory of a commonplace
intrigue. I put into the letter all my enthusiasm. I put into the
letter all my faith.

No sooner, in fact, had I sent it off than a curious reaction came
over me. It seemed to me that I had given away my capacity for
belief in the Willie Hughes theory of the Sonnets, that something
had gone out of me, as it were, and that I was perfectly indifferent
to the whole subject. What was it that had happened? It is
difficult to say. Perhaps, by finding perfect expression for a
passion, I had exhausted the passion itself. Emotional forces, like
the forces of physical life, have their positive limitations.
Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some
form of renunciation of the power of credence. Perhaps I was simply
tired of the whole thing, and, my enthusiasm having burnt out, my
reason was left to its own unimpassioned judgment. However it came
about, and I cannot pretend to explain it, there was no doubt that
Willie Hughes suddenly became to me a mere myth, an idle dream, the
boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was more
anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced.

As I had said some very unjust and bitter things to Erskine in my
letter, I determined to go and see him at once, and to make my
apologies to him for my behaviour. Accordingly, the next morning I
drove down to Birdcage Walk, and found Erskine sitting in his
library, with the forged picture of Willie Hughes in front of him.

'My dear Erskine!' I cried, 'I have come to apologise to you.'

'To apologise to me?' he said. 'What for?'

'For my letter,' I answered.

'You have nothing to regret in your letter,' he said. 'On the
contrary, you have done me the greatest service in your power. You
have shown me that Cyril Graham's theory is perfectly sound.'

'You don't mean to say that you believe in Willie Hughes?' I

'Why not?' he rejoined. 'You have proved the thing to me. Do you
think I cannot estimate the value of evidence?'

'But there is no evidence at all,' I groaned, sinking into a chair.
'When I wrote to you I was under the influence of a perfectly silly
enthusiasm. I had been touched by the story of Cyril Graham's
death, fascinated by his romantic theory, enthralled by the wonder
and novelty of the whole idea. I see now that the theory is based
on a delusion. The only evidence for the existence of Willie Hughes
is that picture in front of you, and the picture is a forgery.
Don't be carried away by mere sentiment in this matter. Whatever
romance may have to say about the Willie Hughes theory, reason is
dead against it.'

'I don't understand you,' said Erskine, looking at me in amazement.
'Why, you yourself have convinced me by your letter that Willie
Hughes is an absolute reality. Why have you changed your mind? Or
is all that you have been saying to me merely a joke?'

'I cannot explain it to you,' I rejoined, 'but I see now that there
is really nothing to be said in favour of Cyril Graham's
interpretation. The Sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke. For
heaven's sake don't waste your time in a foolish attempt to discover
a young Elizabethan actor who never existed, and to make a phantom
puppet the centre of the great cycle of Shakespeare's Sonnets.'

'I see that you don't understand the theory,' he replied.

'My dear Erskine,' I cried, 'not understand it! Why, I feel as if I
had invented it. Surely my letter shows you that I not merely went
into the whole matter, but that I contributed proofs of every kind.
The one flaw in the theory is that it presupposes the existence of
the person whose existence is the subject of dispute. If we grant
that there was in Shakespeare's company a young actor of the name of
Willie Hughes, it is not difficult to make him the object of the
Sonnets. But as we know that there was no actor of this name in the
company of the Globe Theatre, it is idle to pursue the investigation

'But that is exactly what we don't know,' said Erskine. 'It is
quite true that his name does not occur in the list given in the
first folio; but, as Cyril pointed out, that is rather a proof in
favour of the existence of Willie Hughes than against it, if we
remember his treacherous desertion of Shakespeare for a rival

We argued the matter over for hours, but nothing that I could say
could make Erskine surrender his faith in Cyril Graham's
interpretation. He told me that he intended to devote his life to
proving the theory, and that he was determined to do justice to
Cyril Graham's memory. I entreated him, laughed at him, begged of
him, but it was of no use. Finally we parted, not exactly in anger,
but certainly with a shadow between us. He thought me shallow, I
thought him foolish. When I called on him again his servant told me
that he had gone to Germany.

Two years afterwards, as I was going into my club, the hall-porter
handed me a letter with a foreign postmark. It was from Erskine,
and written at the Hotel d'Angleterre, Cannes. When I had read it I
was filled with horror, though I did not quite believe that he would
be so mad as to carry his resolve into execution. The gist of the
letter was that he had tried in every way to verify the Willie
Hughes theory, and had failed, and that as Cyril Graham had given
his life for this theory, he himself had determined to give his own
life also to the same cause. The concluding words of the letter
were these: 'I still believe in Willie Hughes; and by the time you
receive this, I shall have died by my own hand for Willie Hughes's
sake: for his sake, and for the sake of Cyril Graham, whom I drove
to his death by my shallow scepticism and ignorant lack of faith.
The truth was once revealed to you, and you rejected it. It comes
to you now stained with the blood of two lives,--do not turn away
from it.'

It was a horrible moment. I felt sick with misery, and yet I could
not believe it. To die for one's theological beliefs is the worst
use a man can make of his life, but to die for a literary theory!
It seemed impossible.

I looked at the date. The letter was a week old. Some unfortunate
chance had prevented my going to the club for several days, or I
might have got it in time to save him. Perhaps it was not too late.
I drove off to my rooms, packed up my things, and started by the
night-mail from Charing Cross. The journey was intolerable. I
thought I would never arrive. As soon as I did I drove to the Hotel
l'Angleterre. They told me that Erskine had been buried two days
before in the English cemetery. There was something horribly
grotesque about the whole tragedy. I said all kinds of wild things,
and the people in the hall looked curiously at me.

Suddenly Lady Erskine, in deep mourning, passed across the
vestibule. When she saw me she came up to me, murmured something
about her poor son, and burst into tears. I led her into her
sitting-room. An elderly gentleman was there waiting for her. It
was the English doctor.

We talked a great deal about Erskine, but I said nothing about his
motive for committing suicide. It was evident that he had not told
his mother anything about the reason that had driven him to so
fatal, so mad an act. Finally Lady Erskine rose and said, George
left you something as a memento. It was a thing he prized very
much. I will get it for you.

As soon as she had left the room I turned to the doctor and said,
'What a dreadful shock it must have been to Lady Erskine! I wonder
that she bears it as well as she does.'

'Oh, she knew for months past that it was coming,' he answered.

'Knew it for months past!' I cried. 'But why didn't she stop him?
Why didn't she have him watched? He must have been mad.'

The doctor stared at me. 'I don't know what you mean,' he said.

'Well,' I cried, 'if a mother knows that her son is going to commit

'Suicide!' he answered. 'Poor Erskine did not commit suicide. He
died of consumption. He came here to die. The moment I saw him I
knew that there was no hope. One lung was almost gone, and the
other was very much affected. Three days before he died he asked me
was there any hope. I told him frankly that there was none, and
that he had only a few days to live. He wrote some letters, and was
quite resigned, retaining his senses to the last.'

At that moment Lady Erskine entered the room with the fatal picture
of Willie Hughes in her hand. 'When George was dying he begged me
to give you this,' she said. As I took it from her, her tears fell
on my hand.

The picture hangs now in my library, where it is very much admired
by my artistic friends. They have decided that it is not a Clouet,
but an Oudry. I have never cared to tell them its true history.
But sometimes, when I look at it, I think that there is really a
great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare's


{1} Sonnet xx. 2.

{2} Sonnet xxvi. 1.

{3} Sonnet cxxvi. 9.

{4} Sonnet cix. 14.

{5} Sonnet i. 10.

{6} Sonnet ii. 3.

{7} Sonnet viii. 1.

{8} Sonnet xxii. 6.

{9} Sonnet xcv. 1.

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