Shakespeare, Volume 1 by H. N. HudsonHis Life, Art, And Characters

Produced by Ted Garvin, Riikka Talonpoika and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. SHAKESPEARE: HIS LIFE, ART, AND CHARACTERS. WITH AN HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE ORIGIN AND GROWTH OF THE DRAMA IN ENGLAND. _FOURTH EDITION, REVISED_. BY THE REV. H.N. HUDSON, LL.D. VOLUME I. GINN AND COMPANY Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year
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  • 1/1/1872
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Produced by Ted Garvin, Riikka Talonpoika and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.











Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1872, by


In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.




The Memories of a Friendship running, I believe, without interruption through a period of more than five-and-twenty years, prompt the inscribing of these volumes to you.


BOSTON, January 1, 1872.







[Illustration: Etched by Leopold Fluming after the Chandos painting.]


* * * * *

Shakespeare,[1] by general suffrage, is the greatest name in literature. There can be no extravagance in saying, that to all who speak the English language his genius has made the world better worth living in, and life a nobler and diviner thing. And even among those who do not “speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake,” large numbers are studying the English language mainly for the purpose of being at home with him. How he came to be what he was, and to do what he did, are questions that can never cease to be interesting, wherever his works are known, and men’s powers of thought in any fair measure developed. But Providence has left a veil, or rather a cloud, about his history, so that these questions are not likely to be satisfactorily answered.

[1] Much discussion has been had in our time as to the right way of spelling the Poet’s name. The few autographs of his that are extant do not enable us to decide positively how he wrote his name; or rather they show that he had no one constant way of writing it. But the _Venus and Adonis_ and the _Lucrece_ were unquestionably published by his authority, and in the dedications of both these poems the name is printed “Shakespeare.” The same holds in all the quarto issues of his plays where the author’s name is given, with the one exception of _Love’s Labour’s Lost_, which has it “Shakespere”; as it also holds in the folio. And in very many of these cases the name is printed with a hyphen, “Shake-speare,” as if on purpose that there might be no mistake about it. All which, surely, is or ought to be decisive as to how the Poet willed his name to be spelt in print. Inconstancy in the spelling of names was very common in his time.

The first formal attempt at an account of Shakespeare’s life was made by Nicholas Rowe, and the result thereof published in 1709, ninety-three years after the Poet’s death. Rowe’s account was avowedly made up, for the most part, from traditionary materials collected by Betterton the actor, who made a visit to Stratford expressly for that purpose. Betterton was born in 1635, nineteen years after the death of Shakespeare; became an actor before 1660, retired from the stage about 1700, and died in 1710. At what time he visited Stratford is not known. It is to be regretted that Rowe did not give Betterton’s authorities for the particulars gathered by him. It is certain, however, that very good sources of information were accessible in his time: Judith Quiney, the Poet’s second daughter, lived till 1662; Lady Barnard, his granddaughter, till 1670; and Sir William Davenant, who in his youth had known Shakespeare, was manager of the theatre in which Betterton acted.

After Rowe’s account, scarce any thing was added till the time of Malone, who by a learned and most industrious searching of public and private records brought to light a considerable number of facts, some of them very important, touching the Poet and his family. And in our own day Mr. Collier has followed up the inquiry with very great diligence, and with no inconsiderable success; though, unfortunately, much of the matter supplied by him has been discredited as unauthentic, by those from whom there is in such cases no appeal. Lastly, Mr. Halliwell has given his intelligent and indefatigable labours to the same task, and made some valuable additions to our stock.

The lineage of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, on the paternal side, has not been traced further back than his grandfather. The name, which in its composition smacks of brave old knighthood and chivalry, was frequent in Warwickshire from an early period.

The father of our Poet was JOHN SHAKESPEARE, who is found living at Stratford-on-Avon in 1552. He was most likely a native of Snitterfield, a village three miles from Stratford; as we find a Richard Shakespeare living there in 1550, and occupying a house and land owned by Robert Arden, the maternal grandfather of our Poet. This appears from a deed executed July 17, 1550, in which Robert Arden conveyed certain lands and tenements in Snitterfield, described as being “now in the tenure of one Richard Shakespeare,” to be held in trust for three daughters “after the death of Robert and Agnes Arden.”

An entry in a Court Roll, dated April, 1552, ascertains that John Shakespeare was living in Stratford at that time. And an entry in the Bailiff’s Court, dated June, 1556, describes him as “John Shakespeare, of Stratford in the county of Warwick, _glover_.” In 1558, the same John Shakespeare, and four others, one of whom was Francis Burbadge, then at the head of the corporation, were fined four pence each “for not keeping their gutters clean.”

There is ample proof that at this period his affairs were in a thriving condition. In October, 1556, he became the owner of two copyhold estates, one of them consisting of a house with a garden and a croft attached to it, the other of a house and garden. As these were estates of inheritance, the tenure was nearly equal to freehold; so that he must have been pretty well-to-do in the world at the time. For several years after, his circumstances continued to improve. Before 1558, he became the owner, by marriage, of a farm at Wilmecote, consisting of fifty-six acres, besides two houses and two gardens; moreover, he held, in right of his wife, a considerable share in a property at Snitterfield. Another addition to his property was made in 1575,–a freehold estate, bought for the sum of L40, and described as consisting of “two houses, two gardens, and two orchards, with their appurtenances.”

Several other particulars have been discovered, which go to ascertain his wealth as compared with that of other Stratford citizens. In 1564, the year of the Poet’s birth, a malignant fever, called the plague, invaded Stratford. Its hungriest period was from the last of June to the last of December, during which time it swept off two hundred and thirty-eight persons out of a population of about fourteen hundred. None of the Shakespeare family are found among its victims. Large draughts were made upon the charities of the town on account of this frightful visitation. In August, the citizens held a meeting in the open air, from fear of infection, and various sums were contributed for the relief of the poor. The High-Bailiff gave 3s. 4d., the head-alderman 2s. 8d.; John Shakespeare, being then only a burgess, gave 12d.; and in the list of burgesses there were but two who gave more. Other donations were made for the same cause, he bearing a proportionable share in them.

We have seen that in June, 1556, John Shakespeare was termed a glover. In November of the same year he is found bringing an action against one of his neighbours for unjustly detaining a quantity of barley; which naturally infers him to have been more or less engaged in agricultural pursuits. It appears that at a later period agriculture was his main pursuit, if not his only one; for the town records show that in 1564 he was paid three shillings for a piece of timber; and we find him described in 1575 as a “yeoman.” Rowe gives a tradition of his having been “a considerable dealer in wool.” It is nowise unlikely that such may have been the case. The modern divisions of labour and trade were then little known and less regarded; several kinds of business being often carried on together, which are now kept distinct; and we have special proof that gloves and wool were apt to be united as articles of trade.

I must next trace, briefly, the career of John Shakespeare as a public officer in the Stratford corporation. After holding several minor offices, he was in 1558, and again in 1559, chosen one of the four constables. In 1561, he was a second time made one of the four affeerors, whose duty it was to determine the fines for such offences as had no penalties prescribed by statute. The same year, 1561, he was chosen one of the chamberlains of the borough, a very responsible office, which he held two years. Advancing steadily in the public confidence, he became an alderman in 1565; and in 1568 was elected Bailiff, the highest honour the corporation could bestow. He held this office a year. The series of local honours conferred upon him ended with his being chosen head-alderman in 1571; which office also he held a year. The rule being “once an alderman always an alderman,” unless positive action were taken to the contrary, he retained that office till 1586, when, for persevering non-attendance at the meetings, he was deprived of his gown.

After all these marks of public consequence, the reader may be surprised to learn that John Shakespeare, the father of the world’s greatest thinker and greatest poet, could not write his name! Such was undoubtedly the fact; and I take pleasure in noting it, as showing, what is too apt to be forgotten in these bookish days, that men may know several things, and may have witty children, without being initiated in the mysteries of pen and ink. In the borough records for 1565 is an order signed by nineteen aldermen and burgesses, calling upon John Wheler to undertake the office of Bailiff. Of these signers thirteen are markmen, and among them are the names of George Whately, then Bailiff, Roger Sadler, head-alderman, and John Shakespeare. So that there was nothing remarkable in his not being able to wield a pen. As Bailiff of Stratford, he was _ex officio_ a justice of the peace; and two warrants are extant, granted by him in December, 1568, for the arrest of John Ball and Richard Walcar on account of debts; both of them bearing witness that “he had a mark to himself, like an honest, plain-dealing man.” Several other cases in point are met with at later periods; some of which show that his wife stood on the same footing with him in this respect. In October, 1579, John and Mary Shakespeare executed a deed and bond for the transfer of their interest in certain property; both of which are subscribed with their several marks, and sealed with their respective seals.

John Shakespeare’s good fortune seems to have reached its height about the year 1575, after which time we meet with many clear tokens of his decline. It is not improbable that his affairs may have got embarrassed from his having too many irons in the fire. The registry of the Court of Record, from 1555 to 1595, has a large number of entries respecting him, which show him to have been engaged in a great variety of transactions, and to have had more litigation on his hands than would now be thought either creditable or safe. But, notwithstanding his decline of fortune, we have proofs as late as 1592 that he still retained the confidence and esteem of his fellow-citizens. From that time forward, his affairs were doubtless taken care of by one who, as we shall see hereafter, was much interested not to let them suffer, and also well able to keep them in good trim. He was buried September 8, 1601; so that, supposing him to have reached his majority when first heard of in 1552, he must have passed the age of threescore and ten.

On the maternal side, our Poet’s lineage was of a higher rank, and may be traced further back. His mother was MARY ARDEN, a name redolent of old poetry and romance. The family of Arden was among the most ancient in Warwickshire. Their history, as given by Dugdale, spreads over six centuries. Sir John Arden was squire of the body to Henry the Seventh; and he had a nephew, the son of a younger brother, who was page of the bedchamber to the same monarch. These were at that time places of considerable service and responsibility; and both the uncle and the nephew were liberally rewarded by their royal master. By conveyances dated in December, 1519, it appears that Robert Arden then became the owner of houses and land in Snitterfield. Other purchases by him of lands and houses are recorded from time to time. The Poet’s maternal grandfather, also named Robert, died in 1556. In his will, dated November 24th, and proved December 17th, of that year, he makes special bequests to his “youngest daughter Mary,” and also appoints her and another daughter, named Alice, “full executors of this my last will and testament.” On the whole, it is evident enough that he was a man of good landed estate. Both he and Richard Shakespeare appear to have been of that honest and substantial old English yeomanry, from whose better-than-royal stock and lineage the great Poet of Nature might most fitly fetch his life and being. Of the Poet’s grandmother on either side we know nothing whatever.

Mary Arden was the youngest of seven children, all of them daughters. The exact time of her marriage is uncertain, no registry of it having been found. She was not married at the date of her father’s will, November, 1556. Joan, the first-born of John and Mary Shakespeare, was baptized in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon, September 15, 1558. We have seen that at this time John Shakespeare was well established and thriving in business, and was making good headway in the confidence of the Stratfordians, being one of the constables of the borough. On the 2d of December, 1562, while he was chamberlain, his second child was christened Margaret. On the 26th of April, 1564, was baptized “WILLIAM, son of John Shakespeare.” The birth is commonly thought to have taken place on the 23d, it being then the usual custom to present infants at the Font the third day after their birth; but we have no certain information whether it was observed on this august occasion. We have seen that throughout the following Summer the destroyer was busy in Stratford, making fearful spoil of her sons and daughters; but it spared the babe on whose life hung the fate of English literature. Other children were added to the family, to the number of eight, several of them dying in the mean time. On the 28th of September, 1571, soon after the father became head-alderman, a fourth daughter was baptized Anne. Hitherto the parish register has known him only as John Shakespeare: in this case it designates him “_Master_ Shakespeare.” Whether _Master_ was a token of honour not extended to any thing under an ex-bailiff, does not appear; but in all cases after this the name is written with that significant prefix.

Nothing further is heard of Mrs. Mary Shakespeare till her death in 1608. On the 9th of September, that year, the parish register notes the burial of “Mary Shakespeare, widow,” her husband having died seven years before. That she had in a special degree the confidence and affection of her father, is apparent from the treatment she received in his will. It would be very gratifying, no doubt, perhaps very instructive also, to be let into the domestic life and character of the Poet’s mother. That both her nature and her discipline entered largely into his composition, and had much to do in making him what he was, can hardly be questioned. Whatsoever of woman’s beauty and sweetness and wisdom was expressed in her life and manners could not but be caught and repeated in his susceptive and fertile mind. He must have grown familiar with the noblest parts of womanhood somewhere; and I can scarce conceive how he should have learned them so well, but that the light and glory of them beamed upon him from his mother. At the time of her death, the Poet was in his forty-fifth year, and had already produced those mighty works which were to fill the world with his fame. For some years she must in all likelihood have been more or less under his care and protection; as her age, at the time of her death, could not well have been less than seventy.

And here I am minded to notice a point which, it seems to me, has been somewhat overworked within the last few years. Gervinus, the German critic, thinks–and our Mr. White agrees with him–that Shakespeare acquired all his best ideas of womanhood after he went to London, and conversed with the ladies of the city. And in support of this notion they cite the fact–for such it is–that the women of his later plays are much superior to those of his earlier ones. But are not the _men_ of his later plays quite as much superior to the men of his first? Are not his later plays as much better _every way_, as in respect of the female characters? The truth seems to be, that Shakespeare saw more of great and good in both man and woman, as he became older and knew them better; for he was full of intellectual righteousness in this as in other things. And in this matter it may with something of special fitness be said that a man finds what he brings with him the faculty for finding. Shakespeare’s mind did not stay on the surface of things. Probably there never was a man more alive to the presence of humble, modest worth. And to his keen yet kindly eye the plain-thoughted women of his native Stratford may well have been as pure, as sweet, as lovely, as rich in all the inward graces which he delighted to unfold in his female characters, as any thing he afterwards found among the fine ladies of the metropolis; albeit I mean no disparagement to these latter; for the Poet was by the best of all rights a gentleman, and the ladies who pleased him in London doubtless had sense and womanhood enough to recognize him as such. At all events, it is reasonable to suppose that the foundations of his mind were laid before he left Stratford, and that the gatherings of the boy’s eye and heart were the germs of the man’s thoughts.

We have seen our Poet springing from what may be justly termed the best vein of old English life. At the time of his birth, his parents, considering the purchases previously made by the father, and the portion inherited by the mother, must have been tolerably well off. Malone, reckoning only the bequests specified in her father’s will, estimated Mary Shakespeare’s fortune to be not less than L110. Later researches have brought to light considerable items of property that were unknown to Malone. Supposing her fortune to have been as good as L150 then, it would go nearly if not quite, as far as $5000 in our time. So that the Poet passed his boyhood in just about that medium state between poverty and riches which is accounted most favourable to health of body and mind.

At the time when his father became High-Bailiff the Poet was in his fifth year; old enough to understand something of what would be said and done in the home of an English magistrate, and to take more or less interest in the duties, the hospitalities, and perhaps the gayeties incident to the headship of the borough. It would seem that the Poet came honestly by his inclination to the Drama. During his term of office, John Shakespeare is found acting in his public capacity as a patron of the stage. The chamberlain’s accounts show that twice in the course of that year money was paid to different companies of players; and these are the earliest notices we have of theatrical performances in that ancient town. The Bailiff and his son William were most likely present at those performances. From that time forward, all through the Poet’s youth, probably no year passed without similar exhibitions at Stratford. In 1572, however, an act was passed for restraining itinerant players, whereby, unless they could show a patent under the great seal, they became liable to be proceeded against as vagabonds, for performing without a license from the local authorities. Nevertheless, the chamberlain’s accounts show that between 1569 and 1587 no less than ten distinct companies performed at Stratford under the patronage of the corporation. In 1587, five of those companies are found performing there; and within the period just mentioned the Earl of Leicester’s men are noted on three several occasions as receiving money from the town treasury. In May, 1574, the Earl of Leicester obtained a patent under the great seal, enabling his players, James Burbadge and four others, to exercise their art in any part of the kingdom except London. In 1587, this company became “The Lord Chamberlain’s servants”; and we shall in due time find Shakespeare belonging to it. James Burbadge was the father of Richard Burbadge, the greatest actor of that age. The family was most likely from Warwickshire, and perhaps from Stratford, as we have already met with the name in that town. Such were the opportunities our embryo Poet had for catching the first rudiments of the art in which he afterwards displayed such learned mastery.

The forecited accounts have an entry, in 1564, of two shillings “paid for defacing image in the chapel.” Even then the excesses generated out of the Reformation were invading such towns as Stratford, and waging a “crusade against the harmless monuments of the ancient belief; no exercise of taste being suffered to interfere with what was considered a religious duty.” In these exhibitions of strolling players this spirit found matter, no doubt, more deserving of its hostility. While the Poet was yet a boy, a bitter war of books and pamphlets had begun against plays and players; and the Stratford records inform us of divers attempts to suppress them in that town; but the issue proves that the Stratfordians were not easily beaten from that sort of entertainment, in which they evidently took great delight.

We have seen that both John and Mary Shakespeare, instead of writing their name, were so far disciples of Jack Cade as to use the more primitive way of making their mark. It nowise follows from this that they could not read; neither have we any certain evidence that they could. Be this as it may, there was no good reason why their children should not be able to say, “I thank God, I have been so well brought up, that I can write my name.” A Free-School had been founded at Stratford by Thomas Jolyffe in the reign of Edward the Fourth. In 1553, King Edward the Sixth granted a charter, giving it a legal being, with legal rights and duties, under the name of “The King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon.” What particular course or method of instruction was used there, we have no certain knowledge; but it was probably much the same as that used in other like schools of that period; which included the elementary branches of English, and also the rudiments of classical learning.

Here it was, no doubt, that Shakespeare acquired the “small Latin and less Greek” which Ben Jonson accords to him. What was “small” learning in the eyes of such a scholar as Jonson, may yet have been something handsome in itself; and his remark may fairly imply that the Poet had at least the regular free-school education of the time. Honourably ambitious, as his father seems to have been, of being somebody, it is not unlikely that he may have prized learning the more for being himself without it. William was his oldest son; when his tide of fortune began to ebb, the Poet was in his fourteenth year, and, from his native qualities of mind, we cannot doubt that, up to that time at least, “all the learnings that his _town_ could make him the receiver of he took, as we do air, fast as ’twas ministered, and in his Spring became a harvest.”

The honest but credulous gossip Aubrey, who died about 1700, states, on the authority of one Beeston, that “Shakespeare understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country.” The statement may fairly challenge some respect, inasmuch as persons of the name of Beeston were connected with the stage before Shakespeare’s death and long afterwards. And it is not unlikely that the Poet may, at some time, have been an assistant teacher in the free-school at Stratford. Nor does this conflict with Rowe’s account, which states that John Shakespeare kept William at the free-school for some time; but that straitness of circumstances and need of help forced him to withdraw his son from the school. Though writing from tradition, Rowe was evidently careful, and what he says agrees perfectly with what later researches have established respecting John Shakespeare’s course of fortune. He also tells us that the Poet’s father “could give him no better education than his own employment.” John Shakespeare, as we have seen, was so far occupied with agriculture as to be legally styled a “yeoman.” Nor am I sure but the ancient functions of an English yeoman’s oldest son might be a better education for what the Poet afterwards accomplished than was to be had at any free-school or university in England. His large and apt use of legal terms and phrases has induced many good Shakespearians learned in the law to believe that he must have been for some time a student of that noble science. It is indeed difficult to understand how he could have spoken as he often does, without some study in the law; but, as he seems thoroughly at home in the specialties of many callings, it is possible his knowledge in the law may have grown from the large part his father had, either as magistrate or as litigant, in legal transactions. I am sure he either studied divinity or else had a strange gift of knowing it without studying it; and his ripeness in the knowledge of disease and of the healing art is a standing marvel to the medical faculty.

Knight has speculated rather copiously and romantically upon the idea of Shakespeare’s having been a spectator of the more-than-royal pomp and pageantry with which the Queen was entertained by Leicester at Kenilworth in 1575. Stratford was fourteen miles from Kenilworth, and the Poet was then eleven years old. That his ears were assailed and his imagination excited by the fame of that magnificent display cannot be doubted, for all that part of the kingdom was laid under contribution to supply it, and was resounding with the noise of it; but his father was not of a rank to be summoned or invited thither, nor was he of an age to go thither without his father. Positive evidence either way on the point there is none; nor can I discover any thing in his plays that would fairly infer him to have drunk in the splendour of that occasion, however the fierce attractions thereof may have kindled a mind so brimful of poetry and life. The whole matter is an apt theme for speculation, and for nothing else.

The gleanings of tradition apart, the first knowledge that has reached us of the Poet, after his baptism, has reference to his marriage. Rowe tells us that “he thought fit to marry while he was very young,” and that “his wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford.” These statements are borne out by later disclosures. The marriage took place in the Fall of 1582, when the Poet was in his nineteenth year. On the 28th of November, that year Fulk Sandels and John Richardson subscribed a bond whereby they became liable in the sum of L40, to be forfeited to the Bishop of Worcester in case there should be found any lawful impediment to the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, of Stratford; the object being to procure such a dispensation from the Bishop as would authorize the ceremony after once publishing the banns. The original bond is preserved at Worcester, with the marks and seals of the two bondsmen affixed, and also bearing a seal with the initials R.H., as if to show that some legal representative of the bride’s father, Richard Hathaway, was present and consenting to the act. There was nothing peculiar in the transaction; the bond is just the same as was usually given in such cases, and several others like it are to be seen at the office of the Worcester registry.

The parish books all about Stratford and Worcester have been ransacked, but no record of the marriage has been discovered. The probability is, that the ceremony took place in some one of the neighbouring parishes where the registers of that period have not been preserved.

Anne Hathaway was of Shottery, a pleasant village situate within an easy walk of Stratford, and belonging to the same parish. No record of her baptism has come to light, but the baptismal register of Stratford did not begin till 1558. She died on the 6th of August, 1623, and the inscription on her monument gives her age as sixty-seven years. Her birth, therefore, must have been in 1556, eight years before that of her husband.

From certain precepts, dated in 1566, and lately found among the papers of the Stratford Court of Record, it appears that the relations between John Shakespeare and Richard Hathaway were of a very friendly sort. Hathaway’s will was made September 1, 1581, and proved July 19, 1582, which shows him to have died a few months before the marriage of his daughter Anne. The will makes good what Rowe says of his being “a substantial yeoman.” He appoints Fulk Sandels one of the supervisors of his will; and among the witnesses to it is the name of William Gilbert, then curate of Stratford. One item of the will is: “I owe unto Thomas Whittington, my shepherd, L4 6s. 8d.” Whittington died in 1601; and in his will he gives and bequeaths “unto the poor people of Stratford 40s. that is in the hand of Anne Shakespeare, wife unto Mr. William Shakespeare.” The careful old shepherd had doubtless placed the money in Anne Shakespeare’s hand for safe keeping, she being a person in whom he had confidence.

The Poet’s match was evidently a love-match: whether the love was of that kind which forms the best pledge of wedded happiness, is another question. It is not unlikely that the marriage may have been preceded by the ancient ceremony of troth-plight, or _handfast_, as it was sometimes called; like that which almost takes place between Florizel and Perdita in _The Winter’s Tale_, and quite takes place between Olivia and Sebastian in _Twelfth Night_. The custom of troth-plight was much used in that age, and for a long time after. In some places it had the force and effect of an actual marriage. Serious evils, however, sometimes grew out of it; and the Church of England did wisely, no doubt, in uniting the troth-plight and the marriage in one and the same ceremony. Whether such solemn betrothment had or had not taken place between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, it is certain from the parish register that they had a daughter, Susanna, baptized on the 26th of May, 1583.

Some of the Poet’s later biographers and critics have supposed he was not happy in his marriage. Certain passages of his plays, especially the charming dialogue between the Duke and the disguised Viola in Act ii., scene 4, of _Twelfth Night_, have been cited as involving some reference to the Poet’s own case, or as having been suggested by what himself had experienced of the evils resulting from the wedlock of persons “misgraffed in respect of years.” There was never any thing but sheer conjecture for this notion. Rowe mentions nothing of the kind; and we may be sure that his candour would not have spared the Poet, had tradition offered him any such matter. As for the passages in question, I know no reason for excepting them from the acknowledged purity and disinterestedness of the Poet’s representations; where nothing is more remarkable, or more generally commended, than his singular aloofness of self; his perfect freedom from every thing bordering upon egotism.

Our Mr. White is especially hard upon the Poet’s wife, worrying up the matter against her, and fairly tormenting the poor woman’s memory. Now the facts about the marriage are just precisely as I have stated them. I confess they are not altogether such as I should wish them to have been; but I can see no good cause why prurient inference or speculation should busy itself in going behind them. If, however, conjecture must be at work on those facts, surely it had better run in the direction of charity, especially as regards the weaker vessel. I say weaker vessel, because in this case the man must in common fairness be supposed to have had the advantage at least as much in natural strength of understanding as the woman had in years. And as Shakespeare was, by all accounts, a very attractive person, it is not quite clear why she had not as good a right to lose her heart in his company as he had to lose his in hers. Probably she was as much smitten as he was; and we may well remember in her behalf, that love’s “favourite seat is feeble woman’s breast”; especially as there is not a particle of evidence that her life after marriage was ever otherwise than clear and honourable. And indeed it will do no hurt to remember in reference to them both, how

“‘Tis affirmed
By poets skilled in Nature’s secret ways, That Love will not submit to be controlled By mastery.”

In support of his view, Mr. White urges, among other things, that most foul and wicked fling which Leontes, in his mad rapture of jealousy, makes against his wife, in Act i. scene 2, of _The Winter’s Tale_. He thinks the Poet could not have written that and other strains of like import, but that he was stung into doing so by his own bitter experience of “sorrow and shame”; and the argument is that, supposing him to have had such a root of bitterness in his life, he must have been thinking of that while writing those passages. The obvious answer is, To be sure, he must have been thinking of that; but then he must have known that others would think of it too; and a reasonable delicacy on his part would have counselled the withholding of any thing that he was conscious might be applied to his own domestic affairs. Sensible men do not write in their public pages such things as would be almost sure to breed or foster scandal about their own names or their own homes. The man that has a secret cancer on his person will naturally be the last to speak of cancers in reference to others. I can hardly think Shakespeare was so wanting in a sense of propriety as to have written the passages in question, but that he knew no man could say he was exposing the foulness of his own nest. So that my inferences in the matter are just the reverse of Mr. White’s. As for the alleged need of personal experience in order to the writing of such things, why should not this hold just as well in regard, for instance, to Lady Macbeth’s pangs of guilt? Shakespeare’s prime characteristic was, that he knew the truth of Nature in all such things without the help of personal experience.

Mr. White presumes, moreover, that Anne Shakespeare was a coarse, low, vulgar creature, such as, the fascination of the honeymoon once worn off, the Poet could not choose but loath and detest; and that his betaking himself to London was partly to escape from her hated society. This, too, is all sheer conjecture, and rather lame at that. That Shakespeare was more or less separated from his wife for a number of years, cannot indeed be questioned; but that he ever found or ever sought relief or comfort in such separation, is what we have no warrant for believing. It was simply forced upon him by the necessities of his condition. The darling object of his London life evidently was, that he might return to his native town, with a handsome competence, and dwell in the bosom of his family; and the yearly visits, which tradition reports him to have made to Stratford, look like any thing but a wish to forget them or be forgotten by them. From what is known of his subsequent life, it is certain that he had, in large measure, that honourable ambition, so natural to an English gentleman, of being the founder of a family; and as soon as he had reached the hope of doing so, he retired to his old home, and there set up his rest, as if his best sunshine of life still waited on the presence of her from whose society he is alleged to have fled away in disappointment and disgust.

To Anne Hathaway, I have little doubt, were addressed, in his early morn of love, three sonnets playing on the author’s name, which are hardly good enough to have been his work at any time; certainly none too good to have been the work of his boyhood. And I have met with no conjecture on the point that bears greater likelihoods of truth, than that another three, far different in merit, were addressed, much later in life, to the same object. The prevailing tone and imagery of them are such as he would hardly have used but with a woman in his thoughts; they are full-fraught with deep personal feeling, as distinguished from exercises of fancy; and they speak, with unsurpassable tenderness, of frequent absences, such as, before the Sonnets were printed, the Poet had experienced from his wife. I feel morally certain that she was the inspirer of them. I can quote but a part of them:

“How like a Winter hath my absence been From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year! What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen, What old December’s bareness everywhere! For Summer and his pleasures wait on thee, And, thou away, the very birds are mute.

“From you I have been absent in the Spring, When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim, Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing, That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him: Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell Of different flowers in odour and in hue, Could make me any Summer’s story tell, Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew: Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose; They were but sweet, but figures of delight, Drawn after you; you pattern of all those. Yet seem’d it Winter still, and, you away, As with your shadow I with these did play.”

And I am scarcely less persuaded that a third cluster, of nine, had the same source. These, too, are clearly concerned with the deeper interests and regards of private life; they carry a homefelt energy and pathos, such as argue them to have had a far other origin than in trials of art; they speak of compelled absences from the object that inspired them, and are charged with regrets and confessions, such as could only have sprung from the Poet’s own breast:

“Alas! ’tis true I have gone here and there, And made myself a motley to the view;
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear, Made old offences of affections new:
Most true it is, that I have look’d on truth Askance and strangely.

“O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide, The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds, That did not better for my life provide, Than public means, which public manners breeds. Thence comes it that my name receives a brand, And almost thence my nature is subdu’d To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

“Accuse me thus: That I have scanted all Wherein I should your great deserts repay; Forgot upon your dearest love to call, Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day; That I have frequent been with unknown minds, And given to time your own dear-purchas’d right.”

It will take more than has yet appeared, to convince me, that when the Poet wrote these and other similar lines his thoughts were travelling anywhere but home to the bride of his youth and mother of his children.

I have run ahead of my theme; but it may as well be added, here, that Francis Meres, writing in 1598, speaks of the Poet’s “sugared Sonnets among his private friends”; which indicates the purpose for which they were written. None of them had been printed when this was said of them. They were first collected and published in 1609; the collection being arranged, I think, in “most admirable disorder,” so that it is scarce possible to make head or tail to them.

On the 2d of February, 1585, two more children, twins, were christened in the parish church as “Hamnet and Judith, son and daughter to William Shakespeare.” We hear of no more children being added to the family. I must again so far anticipate as to observe, that the son Hamnet was buried in August, 1596, being then in his twelfth year. This is the first severe home-stroke known to have lighted on the Poet.

Tradition has been busy with the probable causes of Shakespeare’s going upon the stage. Several causes have been assigned; such as, first, a natural inclination to poetry and acting; second, a deer-stealing frolic, which resulted in making Stratford too hot for him; third, the pecuniary embarrassments of his father. It is not unlikely that all these causes, and perhaps others, may have concurred in prompting the step.

For the first, we have the testimony of Aubrey, who was at Stratford probably about the year 1680. He was an arrant and inveterate hunter after anecdotes, and seems to have caught up, without sifting, whatever quaint or curious matter came in his way. So that no great reliance can attach to what he says, unless it is sustained by other authority. But in this case his words sound like truth, and are supported by all the likelihoods that can grow from what we should presume to have been the Poet’s natural turn of mind. “This William,” says he, “being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess, about eighteen, and was an actor in one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. He began early to make essays in dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well. He was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men daily wherever they came.”

This natural inclination, fed by the frequent theatrical performances at Stratford, would go far, if not suffice of itself to account for the Poet’s subsequent course of life. Before 1586, no doubt, he was well acquainted with some of the players, with whom we shall hereafter find him associated. In their exhibitions, rude as these were, he could not but have been a greedy spectator and an apt scholar. Thomas Greene, a fellow-townsman of his, was already one of their number. All this might not indeed be enough to draw him away from Stratford; but when other reasons came, if others there were, for leaving, these circumstances would hold out to him an easy and natural access and invitation to the stage. Nor is there any extravagance in supposing that, by 1586, he may have taken some part as actor or writer, perhaps both, in the performances of the company which he afterwards joined.

The deer-stealing matter as given by Rowe is as follows: That Shakespeare fell into the company of some wild fellows who were in the habit of stealing deer, and who drew him into robbing a park owned by Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. That, being prosecuted for this, he lampooned Sir Thomas in some bitter verses; which made the Knight so sharp after him, that he had to steal himself off and take shelter in London.

Several have attempted to refute this story; but the main substance of it stands approved by too much strength of credible tradition to be easily overthrown. And it is certain from public records that the Lucys had great power at Stratford, and were not seldom engaged in disputes with the corporation. Mr. Halliwell met with an old record entitled “the names of them that made the riot upon Master Thomas Lucy, Esquire.” Thirty-five inhabitants of Stratford, chiefly tradespeople, are named in the list, but no Shakespeares among them.

Knight, over-zealous in the Poet’s behalf, will not allow any thing to be true that infers the least moral blemish in his life: he therefore utterly discredits the story in question, and hunts it down with arguments more ingenious than sound. In writing biography, special-pleading is not good; and I would fain avoid trying to make the Poet out any better than he was. Little as we know about him, it is evident enough that he had his frailties, and ran into divers faults, both as a poet and as a man. And when we hear him confessing, as in a passage already quoted, “Most true it is, that I have looked on truth askance and strangely”; we may be sure he was but too conscious of things that needed to be forgiven; and that he was as far as any one from wishing his faults to pass for virtues. Deer-stealing, however, was then a kind of fashionable sport, and whatever might be its legal character, it was not morally regarded as involving any criminality or disgrace. So that the whole thing may be justly treated as a mere youthful frolic, wherein there might indeed be some indiscretion, and a deal of vexation to the person robbed, but no stain on the party engaged in it.

The precise time of the Poet’s leaving Stratford is not known; but we cannot well set it down as later than 1586. His children, Hamnet and Judith, were born, as I have said, in the early part of 1585; and for several years before that time his father’s affairs were drooping. The prosecutions of Sir Thomas Lucy, added to his father’s straitness of means, may well have made him desirous of quitting Stratford; while the meeting of inclination and opportunity in his acquaintance with the players may have determined him where to go, and what to do. The company were already in a course of thrift; the demand for their labours was growing; and he might well see, in their fellowship, a chance of retrieving, as he did retrieve, his father’s fortune.

Of course there need be no question that Shakespeare held at first a subordinate rank in the theatre. Dowdal, writing in 1693, tells us “he was received into the playhouse as a servitor”; which probably means that he started as an apprentice to some actor of standing,–a thing not unusual at the time. It will readily be believed that he could not be in such a place long without recommending himself to a higher one. As for the well-known story of his being reduced to the extremity of “picking up a little money by taking care of the gentlemen’s horses that came to the play,” I cannot perceive the slightest likelihood of truth in it. The first we hear of it is in _The Lives of the Poets_, written by a Scotchman named Shiels, and published under the name of Cibber, in 1753. The story is there said to have passed through Rowe in coming to the writer. If so, then Rowe must have discredited it, else, surely, he would not have omitted so remarkable a passage. Be that as it may, the station which the Poet’s family had long held at Stratford, and the fact of his having influential friends at hand from Warwickshire, are enough to stamp it as an arrant fiction.

We have seen that the company of Burbadge and his fellows held a patent under the great seal, and in 1587 took the title of “The Lord Chamberlain’s Servants.” Eleven years before this time, in 1576, they had started the Blackfriars theatre, so named from a monastery that had formerly stood on or near the same ground. Hitherto the several bands of players had made use of halls, or temporary erections in the streets or the inn-yards, stages being set up, and the spectators standing below, or occupying galleries about the open space. In 1577, two other playhouses were in operation; and still others sprang up from time to time. The Blackfriars and some others were without the limits of the corporation, in what were called “the Liberties.” The Mayor and Aldermen of London were from the first decidedly hostile to all such establishments, and did their best to exclude them the City and Liberties; but the Court, many of the chief nobility, and, which was still more, the common people favoured them. The whole mind indeed of Puritanism was utterly down on stage-plays of all sorts and in every shape. But it did not go to work the right way: it should have stopped off the demand for them. This, however, it could not do; for the Drama was at that time, as it long had been, an intense national passion: the people would have plays, and could not be converted from the love of them.

From what we shall presently see, it would be unreasonable not to suppose, that by the year 1590 the Poet was well started in his dramatic career; and that the effect of his cunning labours was beginning even then to be felt by his senior fellows in that line. Allowing him to have entered the theatre in 1586, when he was twenty-two years of age, he must have made good use of his time, and worked onwards with surprising speed, during those four years; though whether he got ahead more by his acting or his writing, we have no certain knowledge. In tragic parts, none of the company could shine beside the younger Burbadge; while Greene, and still more Kempe, another of the band, left small chance of distinction in comic parts. Aubrey, as before quoted, tells us that Shakespeare “was a handsome, well-shaped man,” which is no slight matter on the stage; and adds, “He did act exceedingly well.” Rowe “could never meet with any further account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own _Hamlet_.” But this part, to be fairly dealt with, requires an actor of no mean powers; and as Burbadge is known to have played the Prince, we may presume that “the Majesty of buried Denmark” would not be cast upon very inferior hands. That the Poet was master of the theory of acting, and could tell, none better, how the thing ought to be done, is evident enough from Hamlet’s instructions to the players. But it nowise follows that he could perform his own instructions.

Let us see now how matters stood some two years later. One of the most popular and most profligate playwriters of that time was Robert Greene, who, having been reduced to beggary, and forsaken by his companions, died miserably at the house of a poor shoemaker, in September, 1592. Shortly after he died, his _Gratsworth of Wit_ was given to the public by Henry Chettle. Near the close of this tract, Greene makes an address “to those gentlemen his _quondam_ acquaintance, who spend their wits in making plays,” exhorting them to desist from such pursuits. One of those “gentlemen” was Christopher Marlowe, distinguished alike for poetry, profligacy, and profanity; the others were Thomas Lodge and George Peele. Greene here vents a deal of fury against the players, alleging that they have all been beholden to him, yet have now forsaken him; and from thence inferring that the three worthies whom he is exhorting will fare no better at their hands. After which he goes on thus: “Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that, with his ‘tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide,’ supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank-verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute _Johannes Fac-totum_, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

Here the spiteful fling at Shakespeare is unmistakable, and nobody questions that he is the “Shake-scene” of the passage. The terms of the allusion yield conclusive evidence as to how the Poet stood in 1592. Though sneered at as a player, it is plain that he was already throwing the other playwriters into the shade, and making their labours cheap. Blank-verse was Marlowe’s special forte, and some of his dramas show no little skill in the use of it, though the best part of that skill was doubtless caught from Shakespeare; but here was “an upstart” from the country who was able to rival him in his own line. Moreover, this Shake-scene was a Do-all, a _Johannes Fac-totum_, who could turn his hand to any thing; and his readiness to undertake what none others could do so well naturally drew upon him the imputation of conceit from those who envied his rising, and whose lustre was growing dim in his light.

It appears that both Shakespeare and Marlowe were offended at the liberties thus taken with them. For, before the end of that same year, Chettle published a tract entitled _Kind Heart’s Dream_, wherein we have the following: “With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted; and with one of them [Marlowe] I care not if I never be: the other I did not so much spare as since I wish I had; because myself have seen his demeanour 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 facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”

On the whole, we can readily pardon the malice of Greene’s assault for the sake of this tribute, which it was the means of drawing forth, to Shakespeare’s character as a man and his cunning as a poet. The words “excellent in the quality he professes,” refer most likely to the Poet’s acting; while the term _facetious_ is used, apparently, not in the sense it now bears, but in that of _felicitous_ or _happy_, as was common at that time. So it seems that Shakespeare already had friends in London, some of them “worshipful,” too, who were strongly commending him as a poet, and who were prompt to remonstrate with Chettle against the mean slur cast upon him.

This naturally starts the inquiry, what dramas the Poet had then written, to earn such praise. Greene speaks of him as “beautified with our feathers.” Probably there was at least some plausible colour of truth in this charge. The charge, I have no doubt, refers mainly to the Second and Third Parts of _King Henry the Sixth_. The two plays on which these were founded were published, respectively, in 1594 and 1595, their titles being, _The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster_, and _The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York_. In the form there given, the plays have, as Mr. White has clearly shown, along with much of Shakespeare’s work, many unquestionable marks of Greene’s hand. All those marks, however, were disciplined out of them, as they have come down to us in Shakespeare’s works. There can be no doubt, then, that Greene, and perhaps Marlowe also, had a part in them as they were printed in 1594 and 1595, though no author’s name was then given. Now it was much the custom at that time for several playwrights to work together. Of this we have many well-authenticated instances. The most likely conclusion, therefore, is, that these two plays in their original form were the joint workmanship of Shakespeare, Greene, and Marlowe. Perhaps, however, there was a still older form of the plays, written entirely by Marlowe and Greene; which older form Shakespeare, some time before Greene’s death, may have taken in hand, and recast, retaining more or less of their matter, and working it in with his own nobler stuff; for this was often done also. Or, again, it may be that, before the time in question, Shakespeare, not satisfied to be joint author with them, had rewritten the plays, and purged them of nearly all matter but what he might justly claim as his own; thus making them as we now have them.

As regards the occasion of Greene’s assault, it matters little which of these views we take, as in either case his charge would have some apparent ground of truth. It is further probable that the same course of remark would apply more or less to _The Taming of the Shrew_, and perhaps also to _Titus Andronicus_, and the original form of _Pericles_. At all events, I have no doubt that these five plays, together with the First Part of _King Henry the Sixth, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Love’s Labour’s Lost_, in its first form, were all written before the time of Greene’s death. Perhaps the first shape, also, of _Romeo and Juliet_ should be added to this list.

My reasons for this opinion are too long to be stated here: I can but observe that in these plays, as might be expected from one who was modest and wished to learn, we have much of imitation as distinguished from character, though of imitation surpassing its models. And it seems to me that no fair view can be had of the Poet’s mind, no justice done to his art, but by carefully discriminating in his work what grew from imitation, and what from character. For he evidently wrote very much like others of his time, before he learned to write like himself; that is, it was some time before he found, by practice and experience, his own strength; and meanwhile he relied more or less on the strength of custom and example. Nor was it till he had surpassed others in _their_ way, that he hit upon that more excellent way in which none could walk but he.

It has been quite too common to speak of Shakespeare as a miracle of spontaneous genius, who did his best things by force of instinct, not of art; and that, consequently, he was nowise indebted to time and experience for the reach and power which his dramas display. This is an “old fond paradox” which seems to have originated with those who could not conceive how any man could acquire intellectual skill without scholastic advantages; forgetting, apparently, that several things, if not more, may be learned in the school of Nature, provided one have an eye to read her “open secrets” without “the spectacles of books.” This notion has vitiated a good deal of Shakespearian criticism. Rowe had something of it. “Art,” says he, “had so little, and Nature so large a share in what Shakespeare did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth were the best.” I think decidedly otherwise; and have grounds for doing so which Rowe had not, in what has since been done towards ascertaining the chronology of the Poet’s plays.

It would seem from Chettle’s apology, that Shakespeare was already beginning to attract liberal notice from that circle of brave and accomplished gentlemen which adorned the state of Queen Elisabeth. Among the “divers of worship,” first and foremost stood, no doubt, the high-souled, the generous Southampton, then in his twentieth year. Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, was but eight years old when his father died: the Southampton estates were large; during the young Earl’s minority his interests were in good hands, and the revenues accumulated; so that on coming of age he had means answerable to his dispositions. Moreover, he was a young man of good parts, of studious habits, of cultivated tastes, and withal of a highly chivalrous and romantic spirit: to all which he added the honour of being the early and munificent patron of Shakespeare. In 1593, the Poet published his _Venus and Adonis_, with a modest and manly dedication to this nobleman, very different from the usual high-flown style of literary adulation then in vogue; telling him, “If your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour.” In the dedication, he calls the poem “the first heir of my invention.” Whether he dated its birth from the writing or the publishing, does not appear: probably it had been written some time; possibly before he left Stratford. This was followed, the next year, by his _Lucrece_, dedicated to the same nobleman in a strain of more open and assured friendship: “The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours.”

It was probably about this time that the event took place which Rowe heard of through Sir William Davenant, that Southampton at one time gave the Poet a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he knew him to be desirous of making. Rowe might well scruple, as he did, the story of so large a gift,–equal to nearly $30,000 in our time; but the fact of his scruples being overruled shows that he had strong grounds for the statement. The sum may indeed have been exaggerated; but all we know of the Earl assures us that he could not but wish to make a handsome return for the _Venus and Adonis_; and that whatever of the kind he did was bound to be something rich and rare; while it was but of a piece with his approved nobleness of character, to feel more the honour he was receiving than that he was conferring by such an act of generosity. Might not this be what Shakespeare meant by “the _warrant_ I have of your honourable disposition”? That the Earl was both able and disposed to the amount alleged, need not be scrupled: the only doubt has reference to the Poet’s occasions. Let us see, then, what these may have been.

In December, 1593, Richard Burbadge, who, his father having died or retired, was then the leader of the Blackfriars company, signed a contract for the building of the Globe theatre, in which Shakespeare is known to have been a large owner. The Blackfriars was not accommodation enough for the company’s uses, but was entirely covered-in, and furnished suitably for the Winter. The Globe, made larger, and designed for Summer use, was a round wooden building, open to the sky, with the stage protected by an overhanging roof. All things considered, then, it is not incredible that the munificent Earl may have bestowed even as large a sum as a thousand pounds, to enable the Poet to do what he wished towards the new enterprise.

The next authentic notice we have of Shakespeare is a public tribute of admiration from the highest source that could have yielded any thing of the sort at that time. In 1594, Edmund Spenser published his _Colin Clout’s Come Home again_, which has these lines:

“And there, though last not least, is AEtion: A gentler Shepherd may nowhere be found; Whose Muse, full of high thought’s invention, Doth, like himself, heroically sound.”

This was Spenser’s delicate way of suggesting the Poet’s name. Ben Jonson has a like allusion in his lines,–“To the Memory of my beloved Mr. William Shakespeare”:

“In each of which he seems to _shake a lance_ As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.”

There can be little doubt, though we have no certain knowledge on the point, that by this time the Poet’s genius had sweetened itself into the good graces of Queen Elisabeth; as the irresistible compliment paid her in a _A Midsummer-Night’s Dream_ could hardly have been of a later date. It would be gratifying to know by what play he made his first conquest of the Queen. That he did captivate her, is told us in Ben Jonson’s poem just quoted:

“Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were To see thee in our waters yet appear;
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames That so did take Eliza and our James!”

_King John, King Richard the Second, King Richard the Third, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream_, and the original form of _All’s Well that Ends Well_, were, no doubt, all written before the Spring of 1596. So that these five plays, and perhaps one or two others, in addition to the ten mentioned before, may by that time have been performed in her Majesty’s hearing, “as well for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure.”

Aubrey tells us that Shakespeare “was wont to go to his native country once a year.” We now have better authority than Aubrey for believing that the Poet’s heart was in “his native country” all the while. No sooner is he well established at London, and in receipt of funds to spare from the demands of business, than we find him making liberal investments amidst the scenes of his youth. Some years ago, Mr. Halliwell discovered in the Chapter-House, Westminster, a document which ascertains that in the Spring of 1597 Shakespeare bought of William Underbill, for the sum of L60, the establishment called “New Place,” described as consisting of “one messuage, two barns, and two gardens, with their appurtenances.” This was one of the best dwelling-houses in Stratford, and was situate in one of the best parts of the town. Early in the sixteenth century it was owned by the Cloptons, and called “the great house.” It was in one of the gardens belonging to this house that the Poet was believed to have planted a mulberry-tree. New Place remained in the hands of Shakespeare and his heirs till the Restoration, when it was repurchased by the Clopton family. In the Spring of 1742, Garrick, Macklin, and Delane were entertained there by Sir Hugh Clopton, under the Poet’s mulberry-tree. About 1752, the place was sold to the Rev. Francis Gastrell, who, falling out with the Stratford authorities in some matter of rates, demolished the house, and cut down the tree; for which his memory has been visited with exemplary retribution.

We have other tokens of the Poet’s thrift about this time. One of these is a curious letter, dated January 24, 1598, and written by Abraham Sturley, an alderman of Stratford, to his brother-in-law, Richard Quiney, who was then in London on business for himself and others. Sturley, it seems, had learned that “our countryman, Mr. Shakespeare,” had money to invest, and so was for having him urged to buy up certain tithes at Stratford, on the ground that such a purchase “would advance him indeed, and would do us much good”; the meaning of which is, that the Stratford people were in want of money, and were looking to Shakespeare for a supply.

Another token of like import is a letter written by the same Richard Quiney, whose son Thomas afterwards married the Poet’s youngest daughter. The letter was dated, “From the Bell, in Carter-lane, the 25th October, 1598,” and addressed, “To my loving good friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare.'” The purpose of the letter was to solicit a loan of L30 from the Poet on good security. No private letter written by Shakespeare has been found; and this is the only one written _to_ him that has come to light. How the writer’s request was answered we have no certain information; but we may fairly conclude the answer to have been satisfactory, because on the same day Quiney wrote to Sturley, and in Sturley’s reply, dated November 4, 1598, which is also extant, the writer expresses himself much comforted at learning that “our countryman, Mr. Wm. Shak., would procure us money.”

The earliest printed copies of Shakespeare’s plays, known in our time, are _Romeo and Juliet, King Richard the Second_, and _King Richard the Third_, which were published separately in 1597. Three years later there was another edition of _Romeo and Juliet_, “newly corrected, augmented, and amended.” In 1598, two more, the First Part of _King Henry the Fourth_ and _Love’s Labour’s Lost_, came from the press. The author’s name was not given in any of these issues except _Love’s Labour’s Lost_, which was said to be “newly corrected and augmented.” _King Richard the Second_ and _King Richard the Third_ were issued again in 1598, and the First Part of _King Henry the Fourth_ in 1599; and in all these cases the author’s name was printed in the title-page. The Second Part of _King Henry the Fourth_ was most likely written before 1598, but we hear of no edition of it till 1600.

Francis Meres has the honour of being the first critic of Shakespeare that appeared in print. In 1598, he put forth a book entitled _Palladis Tamia, Wit’s Treasury_, which has the following: “As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins; so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” The writer then instances twelve of the Poet’s dramas by title, in proof of his point. His list, however, contains none but what I have already mentioned, except _The Merchant of Venice_. Taking all our sources of information together, we find at least eighteen of the plays written before 1598, when the Poet was thirty-four years of age, and had probably been in the theatre about twelve years.

Shakespeare was now decidedly at the head of the English Drama; moreover, he had found it a low, foul, disreputable thing, chiefly in the hands of profligate adventurers, and he had lifted it out of the mire, breathed strength and sweetness into it, and made it clean, fair, and honourable, a structure all alive with beauty and honest delectation. Such being the case, his standing was naturally firm and secure; he had little cause to fear rivalry, he could well afford to be generous; and any play that had his approval would be likely to pass. Ben Jonson, whose name has a peculiar right to be coupled with his, was ten years younger than he, and was working with that learned and sinewy diligence which marked his character. We have it on the sound authority of Rowe, that Shakespeare lent a helping hand to honest Ben, and on an occasion that does credit to them both. “Mr. Jonson,” says he, “who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him, with an ill-natured answer that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something in it so well, as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public.”

Some attempts have been made to impugn this account, but the result of them all has been rather to confirm it. How nobly the Poet’s gentle and judicious act of kindness was remembered, is shown by Jonson’s superb verses, some of which I have quoted, prefixed to the folio of 1623; enough of themselves to confer an immortality both on the writer and on the subject of them.

In 1599, we find a coat of arms granted to John Shakespeare, by the Herald’s College, in London. The grant was made, no doubt, at the instance of his son William. The matter is involved in a good deal of perplexity; the claims of the son being confounded with those of the father, in order, apparently, that out of the two together might be made a good, or at least a plausible, case. Our Poet, the son of a glover, or a yeoman, had evidently set his heart on being heralded into a gentleman; and, as his profession of actor stood in the way, the application was made in his father’s name. The thing was started as early as 1596, but so much question was had, so many difficulties raised, concerning it, that the Poet was three years in working it through. To be sure, such heraldic gentry was of little worth in itself, and the Poet knew this well enough; but then it assured a certain very desirable social standing, and therefore, as an aspiring member of society, he was right in seeking it.

In the year 1600, five more of his plays were published in as many quarto pamphlets. These were, _A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing_, the Second Part of _King Henry the Fourth_, and _King Henry the Fifth_. It appears, also, that _As You Like It_ was then written; for it was entered at the Stationers’ for publication, but was locked up from the press under a “stay.” _The Merry Wives of Windsor_ was probably then in being also, though not printed till 1602. And a recent discovery ascertains that _Twelfth Night_ was played in February, 1602. The original form of _Hamlet_, too, is known to have been written before 1603. Adding, then, the six plays now heard of for the first time, to the eighteen mentioned before, we have twenty-four plays written before the Poet had finished his thirty-eighth year.

The great Queen died on the 24th of March, 1603. We have abundant proof that she was, both by her presence and her purse, a frequent and steady patron of the Drama, especially as its interests were represented by “the Lord Chamberlain’s servants.” Everybody, no doubt, has heard the tradition of her having been so taken with Falstaff in _King Henry the Fourth_, that she requested the Poet to continue the character through another play, and to represent him in love; whereupon he wrote _The Merry Wives of Windsor_. Whatever embellishments may have been added, there is nothing incredible in the substance of the tradition; while the approved taste and judgment of this female king, in matters of literature and art, give it strong likelihoods of truth.

Elizabeth knew how to unbend in such noble delectations without abating her dignity as a queen, or forgetting her duty as the mother of her people. If the patronage of King James fell below hers in wisdom, it was certainly not lacking in warmth. One of his first acts, after reaching London, was to order out a warrant from the Privy Seal for the issuing, of a patent under the Great Seal, whereby the Lord Chamberlain’s players were taken into his immediate patronage under the title of “The King’s Servants.” The instrument names nine players, and Shakespeare stands second in the list. Nor did the King’s patent prove a mere barren honour: many instances of the company’s playing at the Court, and being well paid for it, are on record.

The Poet evidently was, as indeed from the nature of his position he could not but be, very desirous of withdrawing from the stage; and had long cherished, apparently, a design of doing so. In several passages of his Sonnets, two of which I have already quoted, he expresses, in very strong and even pathetic language, his intense dislike of the business, and his grief at being compelled to pursue it. At what time he carried into effect his purpose of retirement is not precisely known; nor can I stay to trace out the argument on that point. The probability is, that he ceased to be an actor in the Summer of 1604. The preceding year, 1603, Ben Jonson’s _Sejanus_ was brought out at the Blackfriars, and one of the parts was sustained by Shakespeare. After this we have no note of his appearance on the stage; and there are certain traditions inferring the contrary.

In 1603, an edition of _Hamlet_ was published, though very different from the present form of the play. The next year, 1604, the finished _Hamlet_ was published; the title-page containing the words, “enlarged to almost as much again as it was.” Of _Measure for Measure_ we have no well-authenticated notice during the Poet’s life; though there is a record, which has been received as authentic, of its having been acted at Court on the 26th of December, 1604. That record, however, has lately been discredited. Of _Timon of Athens_ and _Julius Caesar_ we have no express contemporary notice at all, authentic or otherwise. Nor have we any of _Troilus and Cressida_ till 1609, in which year a stolen edition of it was published. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that these plays were all written, though perhaps not all in their present shape, before the close of 1604. Reckoning, then, the four last named, we have twenty-eight of the plays written when the Poet was forty years of age, and had probably been at the work about eighteen years. Time has indeed left few traces of the process; but what a magnificent treasure of results! If Shakespeare had done no more, he would have stood the greatest intellect of the world. How all alive must those eighteen years have been with intense and varied exertion! His quick discernment, his masterly tact, his grace of manners, his practical judgment, and his fertility of expedients, would needs make him the soul of the establishment; doubtless the light of his eye and the life of his hand were in all its movements and plans. Besides, the compass and accuracy of information displayed in his writings prove him to have been, for that age, a careful and voluminous student of books. Portions of classical and of continental literature were accessible to him in translations. Nor are we without strong reasons for believing that, in addition to his “small Latin and less Greek,” he found or made time to form a tolerable reading acquaintance with Italian and French. Chaucer, too, “the day-star,” and Spenser, “the sunrise,” of English poetry, were pouring their beauty round his walks. From all these, and from the growing richness and abundance of contemporary literature, his all-gifted and all-grasping mind no doubt greedily took in and quickly digested whatever was adapted to please his taste, or enrich his intellect, or assist his art.

I have mentioned the Poet’s purchase of New Place at Stratford in 1597. Thenceforward he kept making other investments from time to time, some of them pretty large, the records of which have lately come to light. It appears by a subsidy roll of 1598, that he was assessed on property valued at L5 13s. 4d, in the parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, London. In May, 1602, was executed a deed of conveyance whereby he became the owner of a hundred and seven acres of arable land in the town of Old Stratford, bought of William and John Combe for the sum of L320. In September following, a copyhold house in Walker-street, near New Place, was surrendered to him by Walter Getley. This property was held under the manor of Rowington: the transfer took place at the court-baron of the manor; and it appears that the Poet was not present at the time; there being a proviso, that the property should remain in the hands of the Lady of the manor till the purchaser had done suit and service in the court. One Philip Rogers, it seems, had several times bought malt of Shakespeare to the amount of L1 15s. 10d.; and in 1604 the Poet, not being able to get payment, filed in the Stratford Court of Record a declaration of suit against him; which probably had the desired effect, as nothing more is heard of it. This item is interesting, as it shows the Poet engaged in other pursuits than those relating to the stage. We have seen how, in 1598, Alderman Sturly was for “moving him to deal in the matter of our tithes.” This was a matter wherein much depended on good management; and, as the town had a yearly rent from the tithes, it was for the public interest to have them managed well; and the moving of Shakespeare to deal in the matter sprang most likely from confidence in his practical judgment and skill. The tithes of “corn, grain, blade, and hay,” and also those of “wool, lamb, hemp, flax, and other small and privy tithes,” in Stratford, Old Stratford, Welcombe, and Bishopton, had been leased in 1544 for the term of ninety-two years. In July, 1605, the unexpired term of the lease, thirty-one years, was bought in by Shakespeare for the sum of L440. In the indenture of conveyance, he is styled “William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, _Gentleman_.”

These notices enable us to form some tolerable conjecture as to how the Poet was getting on at the age of forty. Such details of business may not seem very appropriate in a _Life_ of the greatest of poets; but we have clear evidence that he took a lively interest in them, and was a good hand at managing them. He had learned by experience, no doubt, that “money is a good soldier, and will on”; and that “if money go before, all ways do lie open.” And the thing carries this benefit, if no other, that it tells us a man may be something of a poet without being either above or below the common affairs of life.

A pretty careful investigation of the matter has brought good judges to the conclusion, that in 1608 the Poet’s income could not have been less than L400 a year. This, for all practical purposes, would be equivalent to some $12,000 in our time. The Rev. John Ward, who became vicar of Stratford in 1662, noted in his _Diary_, that Shakespeare, after his retirement, “had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of L1,000 a year, as I have heard.” The honest and cautious man did well to add, “as I have heard.” That the Poet kept up a liberal establishment, and was fond of entertaining his neighbours, and still more his old associates, we can well believe; but that he had L1,000 a year to spend, or would have spent it if he had, is not credible.

Some question has been made whether Shakespeare was a member of the celebrated convivial club established by Sir Walter Raleigh, and which held its meetings at the Mermaid tavern. We have nothing that directly certifies his membership of that choice institution; but there are several things inferring it so strongly as to leave no reasonable doubt on the subject. His conversations certainly ran in that circle of wits some of whom are directly known to have belonged to it; and among them all there is not one whose then acknowledged merits gave him a better title to its privileges. It does not indeed necessarily follow from his facility and plenipotence of wit in writing, that he could shine at those extempore “flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar.” But, besides the natural inference that way, we have the statement of honest old Aubrey, that “he was very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit.” Francis Beaumont, who was a prominent member of that jovial senate, and to whom Shirley applies the fine hyperbolism that “he talked a comedy,” was born in 1586, and died in 1615. I cannot doubt that he had our Poet, among others, in his eye, when he wrote those celebrated lines to Ben Jonson:

“Methinks the little wit I had is lost Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest Held up at tennis, which men do the best With the best gamesters. What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been So nimble, and so full of subtile flame, As if that every one from whence they came Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest, And had resolv’d to live a fool the rest Of his dull life.”

In further token of Shakespeare’s having belonged to this merry parliament of genius, I must quote from Dr. Thomas Fuller, who, though not born till 1608, was acquainted with some of the old Mermaid wits. In his _Worthies of Warwickshire_, he winds up his account of the Poet thus: “Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances: Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”

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The Poet kept up his interest in the affairs of the company, and spent more or less of his time in London, after ceasing to be an actor. We have several subsequent notices of his being in the metropolis on business, one of which is a deed of conveyance, executed in March, 1613, and transferring to him and three others a house with a small piece of land for L140; L80 being paid down, and the rest left on bond and mortgage. The deed bears the Poet’s signature, which shows him to have been in London at the time. The vicar, from whose _Diary_ I have already quoted, notes further that Shakespeare “frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days he lived at Stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year.” That the writer’s information was in all points literally correct, is not likely; but there is no doubt that the Poet continued to write for the stage after his retirement from it.

Of the nine plays still to be accounted for, _Macbeth_ was played at the Globe in 1610, though probably written some time before; _King Lear_ was acted at Whitehall in December, 1606, and three editions of it were issued in 1608; _Antony and Cleopatra_ was entered at the Stationers’ in 1608; _Cymbeline_ was performed some time in the Spring of 1611, and _The Winter’s Tale_ in May the same year; _King Henry the Eighth_ is not heard of till the burning of the Globe theatre in 1613, when it is described as “a new play.” Of _Coriolanus_ we have no notice whatever till after the Poet’s death; while of _Othello_ and _The Tempest_ we have no well-authenticated notices during his life; though there is a record, which has generally passed for authentic, noting them to have been acted at Court, the former on the 1st of November, 1604, and the latter on the 1st of November, 1611: but that record, as in the case of _Measure for Measure_, has lately been pronounced spurious by the highest authority.

It would seem that after the year 1609, or thereabouts, the Poet’s reputation did not mount any higher during his life. A new generation of dramatists was then rising into favour, who, with some excellences derived from him, united gross vices of their own, which however were well adapted to captivate the popular mind. Moreover, King James himself, notwithstanding his liberality of patronage, was essentially a man of loose morals and low tastes; and his taking to Shakespeare at first probably grew more from the public voice, or perhaps from Southampton’s influence, than from his own preference. Before the Poet’s death, we may trace the beginnings of that corruption which, rather stimulated than discouraged by Puritan bigotry and fanaticism, reached its height some seventy years later; though its course was for a while retarded by King Charles the First, who, whatever else may be said of him, was unquestionably a man of as high and elegant tastes in literature and art as England could boast of in his time.

Shakespeare, however, was by no means so little appreciated in his time as later generations have mainly supposed. No man of that age was held in higher regard for his intellectual gifts; none drew forth more or stronger tributes of applause. Kings, princes, lords, gentlemen, and, what is probably still better, common people, all united in paying homage to his transcendent genius. The noble lines, already referred to, of Ben Jonson,–than whom few men, perhaps none, ever knew better how to judge and how to write on such a theme,–indicate how he struck the scholarship of the age. And from the scattered notices of his contemporaries we get, withal, a very complete and very exalted idea of his personal character as a man; although, to be sure, they yield us few facts in regard to his personal history or his actual course of life. How dearly he was held by those who knew him best, is well shown by a passage of Ben Jonson, written long after the Poet’s death, and not published till 1640. Honest Ben had been charged with malevolence towards him, and he repelled the charge thus: “I lov’d the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions.”

I cannot dwell much on the particulars of the Poet’s latter years; a few, however, must be added touching his family.

On the 5th of June, 1607, his eldest daughter, Susanna, then in her twenty-fifth year, was married to Mr. John Hall, of Stratford, styled “gentleman” in the parish register, and afterwards a practising physician of good standing. The February following, Shakespeare became a grandfather; Elizabeth, the first and only child of John and Susanna Hall being baptized the 17th of that month. It is supposed, and apparently with good reason, that Dr. Hall and his wife lived in the same house with the Poet; she was evidently deep in her father’s heart; she is said to have had something of his mind and temper; the house was large enough for them all; nor are there wanting signs of entire affection between Mrs. Hall and her mother. Add to all this the Poet’s manifest fondness for children, and his gentle and affable disposition, and we have the elements of a happy family and a cheerful home, such as might well render a good-natured man impatient of the stage. Of the moral and religious tenour of domestic life at New Place we are not permitted to know: at a later period the Shakespeares seem to have been not a little distinguished for works of piety and charity.

On the 10th of February, 1616, the Poet saw his youngest daughter, Judith, married to Thomas Quiney, of Stratford, vintner and wine-merchant, whose father had been High-Bailiff of the town. From the way Shakespeare mentions this daughter’s marriage portion in his will, which was made the 25th of March following, it is evident that he gave his sanction to the match. Which may be cited as argument that he had not himself experienced any such evils, as some have alleged, from the woman being older than the man; for his daughter had four years the start of her husband; she being at the time of her marriage thirty-one, and he twenty-seven.

Shakespeare was still in the meridian of life. There was no special cause, that we know of, why he might not live many years longer. It were vain to conjecture what he would have done, had more years been given him; possibly, instead of augmenting his legacy to us, he would have recalled and suppressed more or less of what he had written as our inheritance. For the last two or three years, at least he seems to have left his pen unused; as if, his own ends once achieved, he set no value on that mighty sceptre with which he since sways so large a portion of mankind. That the motives and ambitions of authorship had little to do in the generation of his works, is evident from the serene carelessness with which he left them to shift for themselves; tossing these wonderful treasures from him as if he thought them good for nothing but to serve the hour. Still, to us, in our ignorance, his life cannot but seem too short. For aught we know, Providence, in its wisdom, may have ruled not to allow the example of a man so gifted living to himself.

Be that as it may, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE departed this life on the 23d of April, 1616. Two days after, his remains were buried beneath the chancel of Trinity Church, in Stratford. The burial took place on the day before the anniversary of his baptism; and it has been commonly believed that his death fell on the anniversary of his birth. If so, he had just entered his fifty-third year.

The Poet’s will bears date March 25, 1616. I must notice one item of it: “I give unto my wife the second-best bed, with the furniture.” As this is the only mention made of her, the circumstance was for a long time regarded as betraying a strange indifference, or something worse, on the testator’s part, towards his wife. And on this has hung the main argument that the union was not a happy one. We owe to Mr. Knight an explanation of the matter; which is so simple and decisive, that we can but wonder it was not hit upon before. Shakespeare’s property was mostly freehold; and in all this the widow had what is called the right of dower fully secured to her by the ordinary operation of English law. The Poet was lawyer enough to know this. As for “the second-best bed,” this was doubtless the very thing which a loving and beloved wife would naturally prize above any other article of furniture in the establishment.

From the foregoing sketch it appears that the materials for a biography of Shakespeare are scanty indeed, and, withal, rather dry. Nevertheless, there is enough, I think, to show, that in all the common dealings of life he was eminently gentle, candid, upright, and judicious; open-hearted, genial, and sweet, in his social intercourses; among his companions and friends, full of playful wit and sprightly grace; kind to the faults of others, severe to his own; quick to discern and acknowledge merit in another, modest and slow of finding it in himself: while, in the smooth and happy marriage, which he seems to have realized, of the highest poetry and art with systematic and successful prudence in business affairs, we have an example of compact and well-rounded practical manhood, such as may justly engage our admiration and respect.

I have spoken somewhat as to the motive and purpose of his intellectual labour. It was in and for the theatre that his multitudinous genius was developed, and his works produced; there Fortune, or rather Providence, had cast his lot. Doubtless it was his nature, in whatever he undertook, to do his best. As an honest and true man, he would, if possible, make the temple of the Drama a noble, a beautiful, and glorious place; and it was while working quietly and unobtrusively in furtherance of this end,–building better than he knew,–that he approved himself the greatest, wisest, sweetest of men.


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The English Drama, as we have it in Shakespeare, was the slow growth of several centuries. Nor is it clearly traceable to any foreign source: it was an original and independent growth, the native and free product of the soil. This position is very material in reference to the subject of structure and form; as inferring that the Drama in question is not amenable to any ancient or foreign jurisdiction; that it has a life and spirit of its own, is to be viewed as a thing by itself, and judged according to the peculiar laws under which it grew and took its shape; in brief, that it had just as good a right to differ from any other Drama as any other had from it.

The ancient Drama, that which grew to perfection, and, so far as is known, had its origin, in Greece, is universally styled the Classic Drama. By what term to distinguish the modern Drama of Europe, writers are not fully agreed. Within a somewhat recent period, it has received from high authorities the title of the Romantic Drama. A more appropriate title, as it seems to me, suggested by its Gothic original, and used by earlier authorities, is that of the Gothic Drama. Such, accordingly, is the term by which it will he distinguished in these pages. The fitness of the name, I think, will readily be seen from the fact that the thing was an indigenous and self-determined outgrowth from the Gothic mind under Christian culture. And the term naturally carries the idea, that the Drama in question stands on much the same ground relatively to the Classic Drama as is commonly recognized in the case of Gothic and Classic architecture; which may help us to realize how each Drama forms a distinct species, and lives free of the other so that any argument or criticism from the ancient against the modern is wholly irrelevant.

The Gothic Drama, as it fashioned itself in different nations of modern Europe, especially in England and Spain, where it grew up independently, has certain diversities. Upon the nature and reason of these I cannot enlarge. Suffice it to say that they do not reach beyond points of detail; their effect thus being to approve the strength of the common principles that underlie and support them. These principles cover the whole ground of difference from the Classic Drama. The several varieties, therefore, of the Gothic Drama may be justly regarded as bearing concurrent testimony to a common right of freedom from the jurisdiction of ancient rules.

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Of the rise and progress of the Drama in England, my limits will permit only a brief sketch, not more than enough to give a general idea on the subject.

In England, as in the other Christian nations where it had any thing of originality, the Drama was of ecclesiastical origin, and for a long time was used only as a means of diffusing a knowledge of the leading facts and doctrines of Christianity as then understood and received. Of course, therefore, it was in substance and character religious, or was meant to be so, and had the Clergy for its authors and founders. But I cannot admit the justice of Coleridge’s remark on the subject. “The Drama,” says he, “recommenced in England, as it first began in Greece, in religion. The people were unable to read; the Priesthood were unwilling that they should read; and yet their own interest compelled them not to leave the people wholly ignorant of the great events of sacred history.”

Surely, it is of consequence to bear in mind that at that time “the people” had never been able to read; printing had not been heard of in Europe; books were multiplied with great difficulty, and could not be had but at great expense: so that it was impossible the people should be able to read; and while there was an impossibility in the way, it is not necessary to impute an unwillingness. Nor is there any good reason for supposing that the Priesthood, in their simplicity of faith, were then at all apprehensive or aware of any danger in the people being able to read. Probably they worked as honest men with the best means they could devise; endeavouring to clothe the most needful of all instruction in such forms, and mould it up with such arts of recreation and pleasure, as might render it interesting and attractive to the popular mind. In all which they seem to have merited any thing but an impeachment of their motives. However, the point best worth noting here is the large share those early dramatic representations had in shaping the culture of Old England, and in giving to the national mind its character and form. And perhaps later ages, and ourselves as the children of a later age, are more indebted to those rude labours of the Clergy in the cause of religion than we are aware, or might be willing to acknowledge.


In its course through several ages the Drama took different forms from time to time, as culture advanced. The earliest form was in what are called Plays of Miracles, or Miracle-Plays. These were mostly founded on events of Scripture, though the apocryphal gospels and legends of saints and martyrs were sometimes drawn upon for subjects or for embellishments. In these performances no regard was paid to the rules of natural probability; for, as the operation of supernatural power was assumed, this was held a sufficient ground or principle of credibility in itself. Hence, indeed, the name Marvels, Miracles, or Miracle-Plays, by which they were commonly known.

Our earliest instance of a Miracle-Play in England was near the beginning of the twelfth century. Matthew Paris, in his _Lives of the Abbots_, written as early as 1240, informs us that Geoffrey, Abbot of St. Albans, while yet a secular person brought out the Miracle-Play of _St. Catharine_ at Dunstaple; and that for the needed decorations he obtained certain articles “from the Sacristy of St. Albans.” Geoffrey, who was from the University of Paris, was then teaching a school at Dunstaple, and the play was performed by his scholars. Warton thinks this was about 1110: but we learn from Bulaeus that Geoffrey became Abbot of St. Albans in 1119; and all that can with certainty be affirmed is, that the performance was before he assumed a religious habit. Bulaeus also informs us that the thing was not then a novelty, but that it was customary for teachers and scholars to get up such exhibitions.

Our next information on the subject is from Fitzstephen’s _Life of Thomas a Becket_, as quoted by Stowe. Becket died in 1170, and the _Life_ was probably written about twelve years later. After referring to the public amusements of ancient Rome, Fitzstephen says: “In lieu of such theatrical shows and performances, London has plays of a more sacred kind, representing the miracles which saints have wrought, or the sufferings and constancy of martyrs.”

It appears that about the middle of the next century itinerant actors were well known; for one of the regulations found in the _Burton Annals_ has the following, under date 1258: “Actors may be entertained, not because they are actors, but because of their poverty; and let not their plays be seen nor heard, nor the performance of them allowed in the presence of the Abbot or the monks.” The Clergy differed in opinion as to the lawfulness of such exhibitions; and in an Anglo-French poem written about this time they are sharply censured, and the using of them is restricted to certain places and persons. An English paraphrase of this poem was made by Robert Brunne in 1303; who specifies what pastimes are allowed to “a clerk of order,” declaring it lawful for him to perform Miracle-Plays of the birth and resurrection of Christ in churches, but a sin to witness them “on the highways or greens.” He also reproves the practice, then not uncommon, of aiding in such performances by lending horses or harness from the monasteries, and especially declares it sacrilege if a priest or clerk lend the hallowed vestments for that purpose.

The dogma of transubstantiation was particularly fruitful of such exhibitions. The festival of _Corpus Christi_, designed for the furthering of this dogma, was instituted by Pope Urban IV. in 1264. Within a few years from that date Miracle-Plays were annually performed at Chester during Whitsuntide: they were also introduced at Coventry, York, Durham, Lancaster, Bristol, Cambridge, and other towns; so that the thing became a sort of established usage throughout the kingdom. A considerable variety of subjects, especially such as relate to the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection, was embraced in the plan of these exhibitions; the purpose being to extend an orthodox belief in those fundamentals of the faith.

A very curious specimen of the plays that grew out of the _Corpus-Christi_ festival was lately discovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the manuscript being, it is said, as old as the reign of Edward IV., who died in 1483. It is called _The Play of the Blessed Sacrament_, and is founded on a miracle alleged to have been wrought in the forest of Arragon, in 1461. In form it closely resembles the Miracle-Plays founded on Scripture, the Saviour being one of the characters, the others being five Jews, a bishop, a priest, a merchant, and a physician and his servant. The merchant, having the key of the church, steals the Host, and sells it to the Jews, who promise to turn Christians in case they find its miraculous powers verified. They put the Host to various tests. Being stabbed with their daggers, it bleeds, and one of the Jews goes mad at the sight. They next attempt nailing it to a post, when one of them has his hand torn off; whereupon the physician and his man come in to dress the wound, but after a long comic scene are driven out as quacks. The Jews then proceed to boil the Host, but the water forthwith turns blood-red. Finally, they cast it into a heated oven, which presently bursts asunder, and an image of the Saviour rises and addresses the Jews, who make good their promise on the spot. The merchant confesses his theft, declares his penitence, and is forgiven, under a strict charge never again to buy or sell. The whole winds up with an epilogue from the bishop, enforcing the moral of the play, which turns on the dogma of transubstantiation.

There are three sets of Miracle-Plays extant, severally known as the Towneley, Coventry, and Chester Collections; the first including thirty plays, the second forty-two, and the third twenty-four. Some of the manuscripts are thought to be as old as the time of Henry VI., who died in 1471. The three sets have all been recently printed by the Shakespeare Society. The Towneley set most likely belonged to Widkirk Abbey: at what time they grew into use there and at Coventry is not certainly known. At Chester the plays were probably first acted in 1268; after which time they were repeated yearly, with some interruptions, till 1577. And we have conclusive evidence that such exhibitions formed a regular part of English life in the reign of Edward III., which began in 1327. For Chaucer alludes to “plays of miracles” as things of common occurrence; and in _The Miller’s Tale_ he makes it a prominent feature of the parish clerk, “that jolly was and gay,” that he performed in them. And in 1378, which was the first year of Richard II., the choristers of St. Paul’s, London, petitioned the King to prohibit some ignorant persons from acting plays founded on Scripture, as conflicting with the interest of the Clergy, who had incurred expense in getting up a set of plays on similar subjects. Stowe informs us, also, that in 1409 there was a great play in London, “which lasted eight days, and was of matter from the creation of the world.”

As to the general character of the plays, this will best appear by brief analyses of some of them. The Towneley set being the most ancient, my first specimens will be from that.

The first play of the series includes the creation, the revolt of Lucifer and his adherents, and their expulsion from Heaven. It opens with a short address from the Deity, who then begins the creation, and, after a song by the cherubim, descends from the throne, and retires; Lucifer usurps it, and asks his fellows how he appears. The good and bad angels have different opinions about that; but the Deity soon returns, and ends the dispute by casting the rebels with their leader out of Heaven. Adam and Eve are then created, and Satan winds up the piece with a speech venting his envy of their happiness in Eden.

The second play relates to the killing of Abel, and is opened by Cain’s ploughboy with a sort of prologue in which he warns the spectators to be silent. Cain then enters with a plough and team, and quarrels with the boy for refusing to drive the team. Presently Abel comes in, and wishes Cain good-speed, who meets his kind word with an unmentionable request. The murder then proceeds, and is followed by the cursing of Cain; after which he calls the boy, and gives him a beating. Cain owns the murder, and the boy counsels flight, lest the bailiffs catch him. Next we have a course of buffoonery: Cain makes a mock proclamation in the King’s name, the boy repeats it blunderingly after him, and is then sent off with the team; and the piece closes with a speech by Cain to the spectators, bidding them farewell.

The third of the series is occupied with the Deluge. After a lamentation by Noah on the sinfulness of the world, God is introduced repenting that he made man, telling Noah how to build the Ark, and blessing him and his. Noah’s wife is an arrant shrew, and they fall at odds in the outset, both of them swearing by the Virgin Mary. Noah begins and finishes the Ark on the spot; then tells his spouse what is coming, and invites her on board: she stoutly refuses to embark, which brings on another flare-up; he persuades her with a whip; she wishes herself a widow, and the same to all the wives in the audience; he exhorts all the husbands to break in their wives betimes: at length harmony is restored by the intervention of the sons; all go aboard, and pass three hundred and fifty days talking about the weather; a raven is sent out, then a dove, and they debark.

Two plays of the set are taken up with the adoration of the shepherds; and the twelfth is worthy of special notice as being a piece of broad comedy approaching to downright farce, with dashes of rude wit and humour. The three shepherds, after talking awhile about their shrewish wives, are on the point of striking up a song, when an old acquaintance of theirs named Mak, whose character is none of the best, comes among them. They suspect him of meditating some sly trick; so, on going to bed, they take care to have him lie between them, lest he play the wolf among their woolly subjects. While they are snoring, he steals out, helps himself to a fat sheep, and makes off. His wife, fearing he may be snatched up and hanged, suggests a scheme, which is presently agreed upon, that she shall make as if she had just been adding a member to the family, and that the sheep shall be snugly wrapped up in the cradle. This done, Mak hastens back, and resumes his sleeping-place. In the morning the shepherds wake much refreshed, but Mak feigns a crick in the neck; and, while they are walking to the fold, he whips away home. They soon miss the sheep, suspect Mak, and go to his cottage: he lets them in, tells them what his wife has been doing, and begs them not to disturb her; and, as the least noise seems to pain her, they are at first deceived. They ask to see the child; he tells them the child is asleep, and will cry badly if waked; still they insist; pull up the covering of the cradle, and know their sheep by the ear-mark; but the wife assures them it is a child, and that evil spirits have transformed it into what they see. They are not to be duped again; beat Mak till they are tired, then lie down to rest; the star in the East appears, and the angel sings the _Gloria in Excelsis_; whereupon they proceed to Bethlehem, find the infant Saviour, and give him, the first “a bob of cherries,” the second a bird, the third a tennis-ball.

The Chester and Coventry plays, for the most part, closely resemble the Towneley series, both in the subjects and the manner of treating them. A portion, however, of the Coventry set, from the eighth to the fifteenth, inclusive, deserve special notice, as they show the first beginnings or buddings of a higher dramatic growth, which afterwards resulted in what are called Moral-Plays. For instance, Contemplation, who serves as speaker of prologues, and moralizes the events, is evidently an allegorical personage, that is, an abstract idea personified, such as afterwards grew into general use, and gave character to stage performances. And we have other like personages, Verity, Justice, Mercy, and Peace.

The eighth play represents Joachim grieving that he has no child, and praying that the cause of his grief may be removed: Anna, his wife, heartily joins with him, taking all the blame of their childlessness to herself. In answer to their prayers, an angel announces to them the birth of a daughter who shall be called Mary. Then follows the presentation of Mary, and, after an interview between her and the bishop, Contemplation informs the audience that fourteen years will elapse before her next appearance, and promises that they shall soon see “the Parliament of Heaven.” Next we have Mary’s betrothment. The bishop summons the males of David’s House to appear in the temple, each bringing a white rod; he being divinely assured that the man whose rod should bud and bloom was to be the husband of Mary. Joseph, after a deal of urging, offers up his rod, and the miracle is at once apparent. When asked if he will be married to the maiden, he deprecates such an event with all his might, and pleads his old age in bar of it; nevertheless the marriage proceeds. Some while after, Joseph informs the Virgin that he has hired “a pretty little house” for her to live in, and that he will “go labouring in far country” to maintain her. Then comes the Parliament of Heaven. The Virtues plead for pity and grace to man; Verity objects, urging that there can be no peace made between sin and the law; this calls forth an earnest prayer from Mercy in man’s behalf; Justice takes up the argument on the other side; Peace answers in a strain that brings them all to accord. The Son then raises the question how the thing shall be done. Verity, Justice, Mercy, and Peace having tried their wit, and found it unequal to the cause, a council of the Trinity is held, when the Son offers to undertake the work by assuming the form of a man; the Father consents, and the Holy Ghost agrees to co-operate. Gabriel is then sent to salute Mary and make known to her the decree of the Incarnation.

Joseph is absent some months. On his return he is in great affliction, and reproaches Mary, but, an angel explaining the matter to him, he makes amends. The bishop holds a court, and his officer summons to it a large number of people, all having English names, and tells the audience to “ring well in their purse”; which shows that money was collected for the performance. Mary is brought before the court, to be tried for naughtiness, and Joseph also for tamely bearing it. His innocence is proved by his drinking without harm, a liquid which, were he guilty, would cause spots on his face. Mary also drinking of the same, unhurt, one of the accusers affirms that the bishop has changed the draught, but is cured of his unbelief by being forced to drink what is left. The fifteenth play relates to the nativity. Joseph, it seems, is not yet satisfied of Mary’s innocence, and his doubts are all removed in this manner: Mary, seeing a tall tree full of ripe cherries, asks him to gather some for her; he replies that the father of her child may help her to them; and the tree forthwith bows down its top to her hand. This is soon followed by the Saviour’s birth.

Besides the three sets of Miracle-Plays in question, there are other specimens, some of which seem to require notice. Among these are three, known as the Digby Miracle-Plays, on the Conversion of St. Paul. One of the persons is Belial, whose appearance and behaviour are indicated by the stage-direction, “Enter a Devil with thunder and fire.” He makes a soliloquy in self-glorification, and then complains of the dearth of news: after which we have the stage-direction, “Enter another Devil called Mercury, coming in haste, crying and roaring.” He tells Belial of St. Paul’s conversion, and declares his belief that the Devil’s reign is about to end; whereat Belial is in stark dismay. They then plot to stir up the “Jewish Bishops” in the cause, and soon after “vanish away with a fiery flame and a tempest.”

A Miracle-Play relating to Mary Magdalen is remarkable as having required four scaffolds for the exhibition; Tiberius, Herod, Pilate, and the Devil having each their several stations; and one of the directions being, “Enter the Prince of Devils on a stage, and Hell underneath the stage.” Mary lives in a castle inherited from her father, who figures in the opening of the play as King Cyrus. A ship owned by St. Peter is brought into the space between the scaffolds, and Mary and some others make a long voyage in it. Of course St. Peter’s ship represents the Catholic Church. The heroine’s castle is besieged by the Devil with the Seven Deadly Sins, and carried; Luxury takes her to a tavern where a gallant named Curiosity treats her to “sops and wine.” The process of Mary’s repentance and amendment is carried through in due order. Tiberius makes a long speech glorifying himself; a parasite named Serybil flatters him on his good looks, and he in return blesses Serybil’s face, which was probably carbuncled as richly as Corporal Bardolph’s. Herod makes his boast in similar style, and afterwards goes to bed. The devils, headed by Satan, perform a mock pagan mass to Mahound, which is the old name for Mohammed. The three Kings of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil figure in the play, but not prominently. A Priest winds up the performance, requesting the spectators not to charge its faults on the poet.

Here, again, we have allegorical personages, as Lechery, Luxury, and Curiosity, introduced along with concrete particular characters of Scripture. This is carried still further in another play of a later date, called the _Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalen_, where we have divers personifications of abstract ideas, such as Law, Faith, Pride, Cupidity, and Infidelity; the latter being much the same as the Vice or Iniquity who figured so largely in Moral-Plays. Infidelity acts as the heroine’s paramour, and assumes many disguises, to seduce her into