Page images
[ocr errors]

days, were duly observed. No inductive philosophy had yet appeared to disturb the popular belief in fairies or in witchcraft, in ghosts or in spectres; no ruthless geographer had stripped

the still-vexed Bermoothes' of its Ariel and its Caliban, or buried the wand which raised such potent marvels.

By the ingle-nook, especially in country towns like Stratford -half a century behind the metropolis, and exempt from those changes to which a great metropolis is subject-men still talked of elves and goblins, and still devoutly believed in them. They repeated from father to son the local traditions of their own and the neighbouring counties. They knew the battle-fields of Tewkesbury; they had heard tell of the encounter when the Severn hid its head in fear of the blood-stained combatants. Kenilworth and Coventry, Gloucester and Northampton, were studded with historical associations. And many an anecdote, many a feat, a trait of manner, of person, and character, of English worthies would thus be handed down which would be sought in vain in the chronicles of Hall or of Hollinshed. For, unlike the wars of modern times, the civil wars of England were fought by the tenants and labourers of the lord, who returned at the close of the struggle to the plough and the spade, to live and die, in most instances, at no great distance from the scene of their military exploits. So sons and grandsons learned to repeat the stories of meek Henry VI., of the fierce and forbidding Richard III., of the hateful De la Pole and the gracious Edward.

The exact year in which Shakspeare abandoned Stratford for the metropolis cannot now be ascertained, nor yet the motive or the manner of his departure. It has been assumed that he quitted his native town shortly after his marriage with Ann Hathaway. The birth of a daughter, Susannah, in May, 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585, has been adopted as a sufficient reason why he should leave a place and occupation in which his father had not apparently prospered, and enter upon a profession more congenial to the bent of his genius. A story, handed down by the parish clerk of Stratford in 1693, who was then upwards of eighty years old, contains the only trustworthy record of this period of the poet's life. According to this statement, Shakspeare was apprenticed to a butcher, left his master, went to London, "and there was received into the playhouse as a servitor, and by this means had an opportunity to be what he afterwards proved. That the substance of the story is correct, though it may have suffered from the manner of the telling, can hardly be doubted, considering the authority from which it emanates. A parish clerk in a country town, generally the depositary of the local traditions of the place, and living so near the poet's own times, was hardly likely to have invented such a tale, though he may have disfigured it. That Shakspeare's father, combining a variety of kindred occupations—no very unusual practice in a country town—at once glover, maltster, farmer, appraiser, frequently engaged in litigation, and therefore not unfrequently in debt, should not have considered the occupation of a butcher in a country town as a derogatory employment for one of a family of ten children, may be naturally assumed. Nor by the word 'butcher' is it necessary to understand exactly what that word implies now. Popular tradition associated the poet with his father's occupations; and if Shakspeare had never left Stratford he would, like others of his contemporaries, have grown old in his native town no more than glover, butcher, or maltster, as his father had been.


As for his running away to London and leaving his wife and family dependent on the casual charity of others, that story can only be accepted with many modifications. The distance of Stratford from the metropolis, the difficulties of travelling in those days, the improbability that his father would or could have advanced him the necessary means for so doing, and burthened himself with his son's family, must be taken into account. It is much more probable that if Shakspeare did not join one of the many companies of actors who periodically appeared in Stratford or its vicinity, he was brought to London by the Catesbys or the Cloptons, or some one of the powerful families in the county, who had as sufficient reasons for hating the Lucys as Shakspeare himself.

And here, before we pass on to trace the future career of the poet, it will be as well to allude to the anecdote first published by Rowe and repeated by most of the poet's biographers. “He had, by a misfortune' (says Rowe) common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely, and in order to revenge that ill-usage he made a ballad


him.' And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire for some time

Compare the expression : 'An I have not ballads made on you all, and sung to filthy tunes.'


and shelter himself in London, Omitting the modern decorations of the story, we may admit the facts of the deer-stealing in the poet's case, as in that of many others of his contemporaries. It may be hard to point to any direct evidence in the poet's works in confirmation of this act of youthful delinquency; but we think that the impression left on the minds of most of his readers will warrant the belief that the poet had been a lad of spirit, of no 'vinegar aspect;' popular-boy, youth, and manamong his contemporaries, and taking life easy in all its stages, laughing heartily at a jest, and perfectly willing to bear his part in one. So complete and perfect are the harmony and unity of his dramatic characters that we cannot safely derive from them any hypothesis as to the poet's dislikes and predilections ; yet the humours of Eastcheap, the mad pranks of Prince Hal and his associates, the reckless adventures of hair-brained, hotblooded youth, are painted by the poet with such a zest as can scarcely be held otherwise than an indication of his own temperament. But deer-stealing, though a perilous offence, was too popular and too common in all ranks to entail disgrace or compel an offender to flee from his native town. That Shakspeare entertained a personal dislike for the Lucys, we can well believe; and the more so, as of all his signal and numerous opportunities to take poetical vengeance on his unfriends, that of the Lucys is the only prominent instance.* But the feud between the Lucys and the natives of Stratford was of earlier date than this affair of the deer-stealing, and crops out on various occasions. The Lucys were arrogant and imperious Puritans; the good town of Stratford, with the Cloptons and the Catesbys, were zealous adherents of the ancient faith. In the reign of Henry VIII., William Lucy, the father of Shakspeare's Sir Thomas, the friend of Bishop Latimer, had more than once endeavoured to bring down the king's displeasure on the citizens of Stratford for religious differences; and more than once a riot had ensued, in which the Grevilles and the Combes, in conjunction with the Lucys, would have ridden roughshod over the burgesses, of whom Shakspeare's father was afterwards high bailiff, if they had not been supported by the Cloptons

[ocr errors]

* That the Lucys were fond of litigation is implied by the opening lines of • The Merry Wives of Windsor,' and justified by history. In the conversation between Shallow, Slender, and Evans, Slender says, “They may give the dozen white luces in their coat,' To which Shallow replies. It is an old coat.' Evidently referring to the family pride of the Lucys, as well as their antiquity. Evans : • The dozen white louses do become an old coat well; it agrees well, passant :' (That being their heraldic characteristic; 12 luces, passant.) 'It is a familiar beast to man, and significs-love.' Excessively comical in the mouth of a Welshman!


and the Catesbys.* The Lucys were powerful at the Court of the Tudors, for they had blood-royal in their veins; and as many of their opponents were Roman Catholics, or had relapsed from Protestantism to the old faith, one of their most effective instruments for satisfying personal pique, under the garb of patriotism, was to put in force the penal laws and the power of the Crown against their rivals. In a commission issued in 1592 for persecuting and presenting recusants, directed to the Lucys and the Grevilles, and obtained apparently by their means, it is curious to observe that they presented as a recusant Mrs. Clopton,

widow of Wm. Clopton, esq. ;' but in their second return they proceed to rectify their convenient mistake by the naïve admission: Mrs. Clopton, presented as a recusant, was mistaken, and goeth now to church !' In the same presentment, next to Henleyin-Arden, occurs the parish of Sombourne, with this notice : • Mrs. Mary Arden, widow, presented for a wilful recusant before our last certificate, continues still obstinate in her recusancy,' and is accordingly indicted. By the same commissioners, John Shakspeare, the poet's father, is returned as a recusant; but this note is subjoined in his case and in that of eight others : “It is said that the last nine come not to church for fear of process for debt.'t

Now, though it is true that already, some six years before the date of this commission, Shakspeare's father had fallen into difficulties and was deprived of his alderman's gown, it is hardly probable, had he been notoriously affected towards the Protestant religion, that his name would have been inserted in the return of the commissioners; for the object of the commission was not so much to learn who absented themselves from the parish church, as to discover Jesuits, seminary priests, and papal emissaries, now, more than ever, busily engaged in sowing disaffection among the people of Warwickshire, and those who harboured them. The government of the day—as is clear from the cases cited by the commissioners-required attendance at church once a month ; that done, it did not trouble itself with inflicting further penalties, or requiring more distinct proofs of the recusant's loyalty. John Shakspeare was in this sense, and the note was appended to explain the reason why he had not complied with the requirements of the government. If then he were a recusant in the ordinary use of the term, this might account for the pecuniary difficulties into which he fell some years before, when the government of Elizabeth exacted the fines for recusancy with unsparing severity.

a recusant

* Unpublished papers in the Record Office. † MSS. in the Record Office.

That other

That the townspeople of Stratford cordially hated the Lucys, and were particularly anxious to avoid incurring their displeasure, is apparent from the records of the town, printed by Mr. Halliwell. He selects numerous items of sack and sugar for the lips of Sir Thomas and his chief friends, Sir Fulke and Sir Edward Greville. In one entry, dated 1598, the chamberlain very bluntly records: Paid to Sir Fowle (sic) Greville, for nothing, 40s.!' And again in 1601, in an action for trespass brought by Sir Edward Greville against the burgesses of Stratford, the name of John Shakspeare appears as a witness on behalf of the defendants.

We are, therefore, inclined to believe that Shakspeare's departure from his native town was a more deliberate act than Rowe's anecdote of the deer-stalking and the vengeance of the Lucys would lead us to expect. It is impossible that the poet, living so near to Coventry, should not often have witnessed the crude dramatic representations of the times, and equally impossible that the dramatic genius within him, that was never crude, never less than powerful, should not have been mightily stirred by what he saw. Mute, inglorious Miltons’ may have died unseen; but that was because their Miltonic genius was neither all-powerful nor lasting. It was the slave, not the master, of circumstances. But overpowering genius, like mastering passion, admits of no repulse, and suffers no cold obstruction. Besides it must be remembered that in Shakspeare's time-before Puritanism had done its work—the profession of an actor as well as of a dramatist led to fame and opulence. The stage had not yet been regarded as the illusion of antichrist. It still shared with the pulpit the task of instructing the people. It still bore upon its features the marks of its ecclesiastical origin. It still reckoned among its authors and patrons bishops like Bale and Still.

On Shakspeare's arrival in London all accounts concur in asserting that the poet embraced the profession of an actor ; and the old clerk's account—that he was received into the playhouse as a servitor'-is not without probability. Such a practice was not unusual. Mr. Halliwell has referred to an instance in Henslow's diary in which it is stated that "he hired a covenant servant, William Kendall, for two years, after the statute of Winchester, with two single pence, and to give him for his said service every week of his playing in London 10s, and in the country 5s.'

Of the theatres then in vogue the most eminent was the Globe, on the Bankside; and with this or the Black Friars, belonging to the same company, Shakspeare was connected, and in one or

« PreviousContinue »