Page images
PDF
EPUB

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

CHAPTER I.

HOME AND CHILDHOOD.

[ocr errors]

OWARDS the end of last century Steevens 1 gave

the substance of a biography of Shakespeare in the following words : “All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare is--that he was born at Stratfordupon-Avon-married and had children there—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays-returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.” In fact, a hundred years ago the biographer of Shakespeare was much in the same predicament as the young theologian who found that Frederick the Great, when about to select a preacher, had caused a blank sheet of paper to be placed in the pulpit as the text from which he was to preach his sermon. Shakespeare's life is, indeed, anything but a blank leaf, but the writing has for the most part become illegible, and all the philosophical and critical tests that have been applied, have not, as yet, succeeded in accomplishing much more than in bringing to view a number of—for the most part-unimportant, nay, trifling facts and scattered fragments, and these can be formed into one structure only by means of various combinations and conjectures. In the same

1 In a note to Sonnet 93.

2 Even Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps (Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, 6th edition, i. p. xix), who professes merely “to furnish the reader with an authentic collection of all the known facts," has nevertheless to admit that he has given his “ own interpretation of various testimonies," nor can he get on without hypotheses, and it is these very hypotheses more especially that want a proper foundation, as, for instance, his supposition that Shake. speare's wife was afflicted in mind (i. 240).

B

[ocr errors]

way, as Lord Bacon once remarked, that large obstacles may be seen through narrow crevices, we here obtain through small openings a view over large sections and important in. fluences in the poet's life; and Charles Knight is perfectly justified in prefixing to his biography of Shakespeare the words that 60

every life of him must to a certain extent be conjectural.” And indeed this incontrovertible fact is made to hide a number of very questionable statements, in Knight more especially Goethe's remark, that everything that has been said of Shakespeare is inadequate, does not apply only to the æsthetical domain, but to the hermeneutical and biographical domains as well.

When we look around and inquire into the causes which have led to the obscurity that envelops Shakespeare's life, we find, in the first place, that it is wrong to say that his contempories did not value him sufficiently, or—as Hermann Kurz' does—to consider it an irretrievable disgrace on their part not to have handed down any detailed account of his life. For, apart from the fact that Shakespeare may have been active and energetic as a youth, his life in maturer years—like that of almost every poetical nature—was very probably richer in inward than in outward experiences; in this respect, therefore, he would have but little excited the curiosity or the interest of his contemporaries. Besides, biographical literature, the literature of narrating the story of specially remarkable lives, had not yet become the fashion ; the age of Boswell, with its minute details of the domestic life of great writers, had not yet come. Nor were there as yet any journals that entertained their readers with communications concerning the private life and habits of eminent persons. The efforts of all men, in those days, were directed mainly in furthering their own peculiar interests in political, military, naval, or literary affairs, not in describing or narråting the lives of other men, and least of all of writers who had not yet attained a position of their own, or the eminent position they occupy in our day. What do we know of the lives of Spenser, of Marlowe, of Chapman, of Ben Jonson, of Beaumont, or of Fletcher ? Next to nothing. And of Milton, likewise, we should not know anything, had he not taken part in the political life of his day.? Still, we might have possessed

1 Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakespeare Gesellschaft, vi. 342.
2 With regard to Dryden, Dr. Johnson-in his Lives of the Poets-

more biographical material relating to Shakespeare, were it not that political and other events combined to destroy what existed. The Civil Wars, Puritanism, and a strange succession of conflagrations, are to blame for having destroyed the few detailed records of Shakespeare's life that had survived his day. Upon the accession of Charles I., only a few years after Shakespeare's death, and but two years after the publication of his works, the political affairs of the country assumed so serious and threatening an aspect, that all other considerations were thrust into the background-more especially everything connected with the drama, which, as is well known, was one of the first things attacked by the fanaticism of the Puritans. The appreciation of, and interest in literatureespecially in dramatic poetry-which had shortly before risen to an unparalleled height, and which had affected all the different strata of the nation, died out, or rather was stifled by main force, and this change was accomplished with extraordinary rapidity and with a force that hurled down everything that came in its way. There are indications and single incidents enough that enable us distinctly to recognize this fact, even in their connection with Shakespeare. Let the reader but compare the enthusiastic and significant statements of Shakespeare's contemporaries given in Ingleby's “Centurie of Prayse,

with the scanty notices of the poet from the last quarter of the seventeenth century given by Aubrey, FulmanDavies, Dowdall, and John Ward, which are meagre beyond all conception, and wholly devoid of trustworthy information and of judgment. John Ward even makes use of his opportunity by, as it were, mentally tying a knot in his handkerchief, for one of his remarks is : “Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and be versed in them, that I may not be ignorant of them.” What a come down! This neglect into which Shakespeare was allowed to fall, this total want of appreciation of and interest in him, can be accounted for only by the fact that the political revolution was also a complete up-turning of the whole social fabric, an up-turning of the moral, literary, and æsthetic ideas, which affected the very character of the nation. The fact that Shakespeare had himself been an actor was the complains that “his contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, left his life unwritten ; and nothing therefore can be knowu beyond what casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied.” This applies word for word to Shakespeare.

very reverse of a recommendation to the party who had gained the upper hand in the country. Although the theatre was completely suppressed only for a few years during the Commonwealth, still, owing to the absolutely altered character of the drama on its return from exile with the Stuart dynasty, or which it assumed upon its return, there can be no doubt that the change that had taken place deeply affected the vital substance of dramatic poetry.

In addition to these political events, there were, as already said, other causes as well that helped in the destruction, and chief among these was a series of fires, which, by a most strange coincidence, destroyed all the buildings where any papers of Shakespeare's, or records of his life, might have been obtained. First of all, in 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII.,” the Globe theatre was burned down, and in all probability manuscripts of the poet, or other written records relating to the history, the management, and the circumstances of this theatre, were destroyed on that occasion. In the following year, a second conflagration devastated a large portion of Stratford, the town so often visited by the poet, and although, fortunately, Shakespeare's own house (New Place) was spared, still it may surely be assumed --considering that some fifty-four houses fell victims to the flames, and the general confusion that would prevail--that many a record and many an important paper referring to his family was then lost. A few years later (1623 ?) a fire broke out in Ben Jonson's house, destroying more especially books and papers ; there can be no doubt that

his

papers were letters of Shakespeare's, and editions of single works, even though Ben Jonson does not mention this fact in the poem where he laments his losses.? Doubtless, too, the great fire in London in 1666 still further lessened the scanty memorials of Shakespeare's life and work; a large portion of the third folio edition, which had appeared shortly before, is supposed to have fallen a prey to the flames on this occasion, and this edition can thus boast of being almost more scarce even than the first.

among

There are a few other circumstances of a more personal character that must not be left out of consideration. In the

? An Execration upon Vulcan. See The Works of B. Jonson, ed. Wm. Gifford (Moxon, 1846), 707 ff. Compare also p. 41; Ben Jonson’s Conversations with Wm. Drummond, ed. D. Laing, p. 6, Note.

« PreviousContinue »