1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Shakespeare, William
SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1564–1616), English poet, player and playwright, was baptized in the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire on the 26th of April 1564. The exact date of his birth is not known. Two 18th-century antiquaries, William Oldys and Joseph Greene, gave it as April 23, but without quoting Birth and parentage. authority for their statements, and the fact that April 23 was the day of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 suggests a possible source of error. In any case his birthday cannot have been later than April 23, since the inscription upon his monument is evidence that on April 23, 1616, he had already begun his fifty-third year. His father, John Shakespeare, was a burgess of the recently constituted corporation of Stratford, and had already filled certain minor municipal offices. From 1561 to 1563 he had been one of the two chamberlains to whom the finance of the town was entrusted. By occupation he was a glover, but he also appears to have dealt from time to time in various kinds of agricultural produce, such as barley, timber and wool. Aubrey (Lives, 1680) spoke of him as a butcher, and it is quite possible that he bred and even killed the calves whose skins he manipulated. He is sometimes described in formal documents as a yeoman, and it is highly probable that he combined a certain amount of farming with the practice of his trade. He was living in Stratford as early as 1552, in which year he was fined for having a dunghill in Henley Street, but he does not appear to have been a native of the town, in whose records the name is not found before his time; and he may reasonably be identified with the John Shakespeare of Snitterfield, who administered the goods of his father, Richard Shakespeare, in 1561. Snitterfield is a village in the immediate neighbourhood of Stratford, and here Richard Shakespeare had been settled as a farmer since 1529. It is possible that John Shakespeare carried on the farm for some time after his father’s death, and that by 1570 he had also acquired a small holding called Ingon in Hampton Lucy, the next village to Snitterfield. But both of these seem to have passed subsequently to his brother Henry, who was buried at Snitterfield in 1596. There was also at Snitterfield a Thomas Shakespeare and an Anthony Shakespeare, who afterwards moved to Hampton Corley; and these may have been of the same family. A John Shakespeare, who dwelt at Clifford Chambers, another village close to Stratford, is clearly distinct. Strenuous efforts have been made to trace Shakespeare’s genealogy beyond Richard of Snitterfield, but so far without success. Certain drafts of heraldic exemplifications of the Shakespeare arms speak, in one case of John Shakespeare’s grandfather, in another of his great-grandfather, as having been rewarded with lands and tenements in Warwickshire for service to Henry VII. No such grants, however, have been traced, and even in the 16th-century statements as to “antiquity and service” in heraldic preambles were looked upon with suspicion.
The name Shakespeare is extremely widespread, and is spelt in an astonishing variety of ways. That of John Shakespeare occurs 166 times in the Council Book of the Stratford corporation, and appears to take 16 different forms. The verdict, not altogether unanimous, of competent palaeographers is to the effect that Shakespeare himself, in the extant examples of his signature, always wrote “Shakspere.” In the printed signatures to the dedications of his poems, on the title-pages of nearly all the contemporary editions of his plays that bear his name, and in many formal documents it appears as Shakespeare. This may be in part due to the martial derivation which the poet’s literary contemporaries were fond of assigning to his name, and which is acknowledged in the arms that he bore. The forms in use at Stratford, however, such as Shaxpeare, by far the commonest, suggest a short pronunciation of the first syllable, and thus tend to support Dr Henry Bradley’s derivation from the Anglo-Saxon personal name, Seaxberht. It is interesting, and even amusing, to record that in 1487 Hugh Shakspere of Merton College, Oxford, changed his name to Sawndare, because his former name vile reputatum est. The earliest record of a Shakespeare that has yet been traced is in 1248 at Clapton in Gloucestershire, about seven miles from Stratford. The name also occurs during the 13th century in Kent, Essex and Surrey, and during the 14th in Cumberland, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Essex, Warwickshire and as far away as Youghal in Ireland. Thereafter it is found in London and most of the English counties, particularly those of the midlands; and nowhere more freely than in Warwickshire. There were Shakespeares in Warwick and in Coventry, as well as around Stratford; and the clan appears to have been very numerous in a group of villages about twelve miles north of Stratford, which includes Baddesley Clinton, Wroxall, Rowington, Haseley, Hatton, Lapworth, Packwood, Balsall and Knowle. William was in common use as a personal name, and Williams from more than one other family have from time to time been confounded with the dramatist. Many Shakespeares are upon the register of the gild of St Anne at Knowle from about 1457 to about 1526. Amongst these were Isabella Shakespeare, prioress of the Benedictine convent of Wroxall, and Jane Shakespeare, a nun of the same convent. Shakespeares are also found as tenants on the manors belonging to the convent, and at the time of the Dissolution in 1534 one Richard Shakespeare was its bailiff and collector of rents. Conjectural attempts have been made on the one hand to connect the ancestors of this Richard Shakespeare with a family of the same name who held land by military tenure at Baddesley Clinton in the 14th and 15th centuries, and on the other to identify him with the poet’s grandfather, Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield. But Shakespeares are to be traced at Wroxall nearly as far back as at Baddesley Clinton, and there is no reason to suppose that Richard the bailiff, who was certainly still a tenant of Wroxall in 1556, had also since 1529 been farming land ten miles off at Snitterfield.
With the breaking of this link, the hope of giving Shakespeare anything more than a grandfather on the father’s side must be laid aside for the present. On the mother’s side he was connected with a family of some distinction. Part at least of Richard Shakespeare’s land at Snitterfield was held from Robert Arden of Wilmcote in the adjoining parish of Aston Cantlow, a cadet of the Ardens of Parkhall, who counted amongst the leading gentry of Warwickshire. Robert Arden married his second wife, Agnes Hill, formerly Webbe, in 1548, and had then no less than eight daughters by his first wife. To the youngest of these, Mary Arden, he left in 1556 a freehold in Aston Cantlow consisting of a farm of about fifty or sixty acres in extent, known as Asbies. At some date later than November 1556, and probably before the end of 1557, Mary Arden became the wife of John Shakespeare. In October 1556 John Shakespeare had bought two freehold houses, one in Greenhill Street, the other in Henley Street. The latter, known as the wool shop, was the easternmost of the two tenements now combined in the so-called Shakespeare’s birthplace. The western tenement, the birthplace proper, was probably already in John Shakespeare’s hands, as he seems to have been living in Henley Street in 1552. It has sometimes been thought to have been one of two houses which formed a later purchase in 1575, but there is no evidence that these were in Henley Street at all.
William Shakespeare was not the first child. A Joan was baptized in 1558 and a Margaret in 1562. The latter was buried in 1563 and the former must also have died young, although her burial is not recorded, as a second Joan was baptized in 1569. A Gilbert was baptized in 1566, an Anne in 1571, a Richard in 1574 and an Edmund in 1580. Anne died in 1579; Edmund, who like his brother became an actor, in 1607; Richard in 1613. Tradition has it that one of Shakespeare’s brothers used to visit London in the 17th century as quite an old man. If so, this can only have been Gilbert.
During the years that followed his marriage, John Shakespeare became prominent in Stratford life. In 1565 he was chosen as an alderman, and in 1568 he held the chief municipal office, that of high bailiff. This carried with it the dignity of justice of the peace. John Shakespeare seems to have assumed arms, and thenceforward was always entered in corporation documents as “Mr” Shakespeare, whereby he may be distinguished from another John Shakespeare, a “corviser” or shoemaker, who dwelt in Stratford about 1584–1592. In 1571 as an ex-bailiff he began another year of office as chief alderman.
One may think, therefore, of Shakespeare in his boyhood as the son of one of the leading citizens of a not unimportant provincial market-town, with a vigorous life of its own, which in spite of the dunghills was probably not much unlike the life of a similar town to-day, and with constant reminders of its past in the shape of the stately buildings formerly Youth. belonging to its college and its gild, both of which had been suppressed at the Reformation. Stratford stands on the Avon, in the midst of an agricultural country, throughout which in those days enclosed orchards and meadows alternated with open fields for tillage, and not far from the wilder and wooded district known as the Forest of Arden. The middle ages had left it an heritage in the shape of a free grammar-school, and here it is natural to suppose that William Shakespeare obtained a sound enough education, with a working knowledge of “Mantuan” and Ovid in the original, even though to such a thorough scholar as Ben Jonson it might seem no more than “small Latin and less Greek.” In 1577, when Shakespeare was about thirteen, his father’s fortunes began to take a turn for the worse. He became irregular in his contributions to town levies, and had to give a mortgage on his wife’s property of Asbies as security for a loan from her brother-in-law, Edmund Lambert. Money was raised to pay this off, partly by the sale of a small interest in land at Snitterfield which had come to Mary Shakespeare from her sisters, partly perhaps by that of the Greenhill Street house and other property in Stratford outside Henley Street, none of which seems to have ever come into William Shakespeare’s hands. Lambert, however, refused to surrender the mortgage on the plea of older debts, and an attempt to recover Asbies by litigation proved ineffectual. John Shakespeare’s difficulties increased. An action for debt was sustained against him in the local court, but no personal property could be found on which to distrain. He had long ceased to attend the meetings of the corporation, and as a consequence he was removed in 1586 from the list of aldermen. In this state of domestic affairs it is not likely that Shakespeare’s school life was unduly prolonged. The chances are that he was apprenticed to some local trade. Aubrey says that he killed calves for his father, and “would do it in a high style, and make a speech.”
Whatever his circumstances, they did not deter him at the early age of eighteen from the adventure of marriage. Rowe recorded the name of Shakespeare’s wife as Hathaway, and Joseph Greene succeeded in tracing her to a family of that name dwelling in Shottery, one of the hamlets of Stratford. Her monument gives her first name as Anne, and her age as Marriage. sixty-seven in 1623. She must, therefore, have been about eight years older than Shakespeare. Various small trains of evidence point to her identification with the daughter Agnes mentioned in the will of a Richard Hathaway of Shottery, who died in 1581, being then in possession of the farm-house now known as “Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.” Agnes was legally a distinct name from Anne, but there can be no doubt that ordinary custom treated them as identical. The principal record of the marriage is a bond dated on November 28, 1582, and executed by Fulk Sandells and John Richardson, two yeomen of Stratford who also figure in Richard Hathaway’s will, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a licence for the marriage of William Shakespeare and “Anne Hathwey of Stratford,” upon the consent of her friends, with one asking of the banns. There is no reason to suppose, as has been suggested, that the procedure adopted was due to dislike of the marriage on the part of John Shakespeare, since, the bridegroom being a minor, it would not have been in accordance with the practice of the bishop’s officials to issue the licence without evidence of the father’s consent. The explanation probably lies in the fact that Anne was already with child, and in the near neighbourhood of Advent within which marriages were prohibited, so that the ordinary procedure by banns would have entailed a delay until after Christmas. A kindly sentiment has suggested that some form of civil marriage, or at least contract of espousals, had already taken place, so that a canonical marriage was really only required in order to enable Anne to secure the legacy left her by her father “at the day of her marriage.” But such a theory is not rigidly required by the facts. It is singular that, upon the day before that on which the bond was executed, an entry was made in the bishop’s register of the issue of a licence for a marriage between William Shakespeare and “Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.” Of this it can only be said that the bond, as an original document, is infinitely the better authority, and that a scribal error of “Whateley” for “Hathaway” is quite a possible solution. Temple Grafton may have been the nominal place of marriage indicated in the licence, which was not always the actual place of residence of either bride or bridegroom. There are no contemporary registers for Temple Grafton, and there is no entry of the marriage in those for Stratford-upon-Avon. There is a tradition that such a record was seen during the 19th century in the registers for Luddington, a chapelry within the parish, which are now destroyed. Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was baptized on the 26th of May 1583, and was followed on the 2nd of February 1585 by twins, Hamnet and Judith.
In or after 1584 Shakespeare’s career in Stratford seems to have come to a tempestuous close. An 18th-century story of a drinking-bout in a neighbouring village is of no obscure importance, except as indicating a local impression years, Obscure years, 1884–1892. that a distinguished citizen had had a wildish youth. But there is a tradition which comes from a double source and which there is no reason to reject in substance, to the effect that Shakespeare got into trouble through poaching on the estates of a considerable Warwickshire magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, and found it necessary to leave Stratford in order to escape the results of his misdemeanour. It is added that he afterwards took his revenge on Lucy by satirizing him as the Justice Shallow, with the dozen white louses in his old coat, of The Merry Wives of Windsor. From this event until he emerges as an actor and rising playwright in 1592 his history is a blank, and it is impossible to say what experience may not have helped to fill it. Much might indeed be done in eight years of crowded Elizabethan life. Conjecture has not been idle, and has assigned him in turns during this or some other period to the occupations of a scrivener, an apothecary, a dyer, a printer, a soldier, and the like. The suggestion that he saw military service rests largely on a confusion with another William Shakespeare of Rowington. Aubrey had heard that “he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country.” The mention in Henry IV. of certain obscure yeomen families, Visor of Woncote and Perkes of Stinchcombe Hill, near Dursley in Gloucestershire, has been thought to suggest a sojourn in that district, where indeed Shakespeares were to be found from an early date. Ultimately, of course, he drifted to London and the theatre, where, according to the stage tradition, he found employment in a menial capacity, perhaps even as a holder of horses at the doors, before he was admitted into a company as an actor and so found his way to his true vocation as a writer of plays. Malone thought that he might have left Stratford with one of the travelling companies of players which from time to time visited the town. Later biographers have fixed upon Leicester’s men, who were at Stratford in 1587, and have held that Shakespeare remained to the end in the same company, passing with it on Leicester’s death in 1588 under the patronage of Ferdinando, Lord Strange and afterwards earl of Derby, and on Derby’s death in 1594 under that of the lord chamberlain, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. This theory perhaps hardly takes sufficient account of the shifting combinations and recombinations of actors, especially during the disastrous plague years of 1592 to 1594. The continuity of Strange’s company with Leicester’s is very disputable, and while the names of many members of Strange’s company in and about 1593 are on record, Shakespeare’s is not amongst them. It is at least possible, as will be seen later, that he had about this time relations with the earl of Pembroke’s men, or with the earl of Sussex’s men, or with both of these organizations.
What is clear is that by the summer of 1592, when he was
twenty-eight, he had begun to emerge as a playwright, and had
evoked the jealousy of one at least of the group of
scholar poets who in recent years had claimed a
and poet. monopoly of the stage. This was Robert Greene, who, in an invective on behalf of the play-makers against the play-actors which forms part of his Groats-worth of Wit, speaks of “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.” The play upon Shakespeare’s name and the parody of a line from Henry VI. make the reference unmistakable. The London theatres were closed, first through riots and then through plague, from June 1392 to April 1594, with the exception of about a month at each Christmas during that period; and the companies were dissolved or driven to the provinces. Even if Shakespeare had been connected with Strange’s men during their London seasons of 1592 and 1593, it does not seem that he travelled with them. Other activities may have been sufficient to occupy the interval. The most important of these was probably an attempt to win a reputation in the world of non-dramatic poetry. Venus and Adonis was published about April 1393, and Lucrece about May 1594. The poems were printed by Richard Field, in whom Shakespeare would have found an old Stratford acquaintance; and each has a dedication to Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, a brilliant and accomplished favourite of the court, still in his nonage. A possibly super-subtle criticism discerns an increased warmth in the tone of the later dedication, which is supposed to argue a marked growth of intimacy. The fact of this intimacy is vouched for by the story handed down from Sir William Davenant to Rowe (who published in 1709 the first regular biography of Shakespeare) that Southampton gave Shakespeare a thousand pounds “to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to.” The date of this generosity is not specified, and there is no known purchase by Shakespeare which can have cost anything like the sum named. The mention of Southampton leads naturally to the most difficult problem which a biographer has to handle, that of the Sonnets. But this will be more conveniently taken up at a later point, and it is only necessary here to put on record the probability that the earliest of the sonnets belong to the period now under discussion. There is a surmise, which is not in itself other than plausible, and which has certainly been supported with a good deal of ingenious argument, that Shakespeare’s enforced leisure enabled him to make of 1593 a Wanderjahr, and in particular that the traces of a visit to northern Italy may clearly be seen in the local colouring of Lucrece as compared with Venus and Adonis, and in that of the group of plays which may be dated in or about 1594 and 1595 as compared with those that preceded. It must, however, be borne in mind that, while Shakespeare may perfectly well, at this or at some earlier time, have voyaged to Italy, and possibly Denmark and even Germany as well, there is no direct evidence to rely upon, and that inference from internal evidence is a dangerous guide when a writer of so assimilative a temperament as that of Shakespeare is concerned.
From the reopening of the theatres in the summer of 1594 onwards Shakespeare’s status is in many ways clearer. He had certainly become a leading member of the Chamberlain’s company by the following winter, when his Connexion with the Chamberlain’s company of actors. name appears for the first and only time in the treasurer of the chamber’s accounts as one of the recipients of payment for their performances at court; and there is every reason to suppose that he continued to act with and write for the same associates to the close of his career. The history of the company may be briefly told. At the death of the lord chamberlain on the 22nd of July 1596, it passed under the protection of his successor, George, 2nd Lord Hunsdon, and once more became “the Lord Chamberlain’s men” when he was appointed to that office on the 17th of March 1597. James I. on his accession took this company under his patronage as grooms of the chamber, and during the remainder of Shakespeare’s connexion with the stage they were “the King’s men.” The records of performances at court show that they were by far the most favoured of the companies, their nearest rivals being the company known during the reign of Elizabeth as “the Admiral’s,” and afterwards as “Prince Henry’s men.” From the summer of 1594 to March 1603 they appear to have played almost continuously in London, as the only provincial performances by them which are upon record were during the autumn of 1597, when the London theatres were for a short time closed owing to the interference of some of the players in politics. They travelled again during 1603 when the plague was in London, and during at any rate portions of the summers or autumns of most years thereafter. In 1594 they were playing at Newington Butts, and probably also at the Rose on Bankside, and at the Cross Keys in the city. It is natural to suppose that in later years they used the Theatre in Shoreditch, since this was the property of James Burbage, the father of their principal actor, Richard Burbage. The Theatre was pulled down in 1598, and, after a short interval during which the company may have played at the Curtain, also in Shoreditch, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert rehoused them in the Globe on Bankside, built in part out of the materials of the Theatre. Here the profits of the enterprise were divided between the members of the company as such and the owners of the building as “housekeepers,” and shares in the “house” were held in joint tenancy by Shakespeare and some of his leading “fellows.” About 1608 another playhouse became available for the company in the “private” or winter house of the Black Friars. This was also the property of the Burbages, but had previously been leased to a company of boy players. A somewhat similar arrangement as to profits was made.
Shakespeare is reported by Aubrey to have been a good actor, but Adam in As You Like It, and the Ghost in Hamlet indicate the type of part which he played. As a dramatist, however, he was the mainstay of the company for at least some fifteen years, during which Ben Jonson, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Tourneur also contributed to their repertory. On an average he must have written for them about two plays a year, although his rapidity of production seems to have been greatest during the opening years of the period. There was also no doubt a good deal of rewriting of his own earlier work, and also perhaps, at the beginning, of that of others. Occasionally he may have entered into collaboration, as, for example, at the end of his career, with Fletcher.
In a worldly sense he clearly flourished, and about 1596, if not earlier, he was able to resume relations as a moneyed man with Stratford-on-Avon. There is no evidence to show whether he had visited the town in the interval, or whether he had brought his wife and family to London. His son Hamnet died and was buried at Stratford in 1596. During the last ten years John Shakespeare’s affairs had remained unprosperous. He incurred fresh debt, partly through becoming surety for his brother Henry; and in 1592 his name was included in a list of recusants dwelling at or near Stratford-on-Avon, with a note by the commissioners that in his case the cause was believed to be the fear of process for debt. There is no reason to doubt Stratford affairs. this explanation, or to seek a religious motive in Shakespeare’s abstinence from church. William Shakespeare’s purse must have made a considerable difference. The prosecutions for debt ceased, and in 1597 a fresh action was brought in Chancery for the recovery of Asbies from the Lamberts. Like the last, it seems to have been without result. Another step was taken to secure the dignity of the family by an application in the course of 1596 to the heralds for the confirmation of a coat of arms said to have been granted to John Shakespeare while he was bailiff of Stratford. The bearings were or on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, the crest a falcon his wings displayed argent supporting a spear or steeled argent, and the motto Non sanz droict. The grant was duly made, and in 1599 there was a further application for leave to impale the arms of Arden, in right of Shakespeare’s mother. No use, however, of the Arden arms by the Shakespeares can be traced. In 1597 Shakespeare made an important purchase for £60 of the house and gardens of New Place in Chapel Street. This was one of the largest houses in Stratford, and its acquisition an obvious triumph for the ex-poacher. Presumably John Shakespeare ended his days in peace. A visitor to his shop remembered him as “a merry-cheekt old man” always ready to crack a jest with his son. He died in 1601, and his wife in 1608, and the Henley Street houses passed to Shakespeare. Aubrey records that he paid annual visits to Stratford, and there is evidence that he kept in touch with the life of the place. The correspondence of his neighbours, the Quineys, in 1598 contains an application to him for a loan to Richard Quiney upon a visit to London, and a discussion of possible investments for him in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In 1602 he took, at a rent of 2s. 6d. a year, a copyhold cottage in Chapel Lane, perhaps for the use of his gardener. In the same year he invested £320 in the purchase of an estate consisting of 107 acres in the open fields of Old Stratford, together with a farm-house, garden and orchard, 20 acres of pasture and common rights; and in 1605 he spent another £440 in the outstanding term of a lease of certain great tithes in Stratford parish, which brought in an income of about £60 a year.
Meanwhile London remained his headquarters. Here Malone thought that he had evidence, now lost, of his residence in Southwark as early as 1596, and as late as 1608. It is known that payments of subsidy were due from him London associations. for 1597 and 1598 in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and that an arrear was ultimately collected in the liberty of the Clink. He had no doubt migrated from Bishopsgate when the Globe upon Bankside was opened by the Chamberlain’s men. There is evidence that in 1604 he “lay,” temporarily or permanently, in the house of Christopher Mountjoy, a tire-maker of French extraction, at the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street in Cripplegate. A recently recovered note by Aubrey, if it really refers to Shakespeare (which is not quite certain), is of value as throwing light not only upon his abode, but upon his personality. Aubrey seems to have derived it from William Beeston the actor, and through him from John Lacy, an actor of the king’s company. It is as follows: “The more to be admired q[uod] he was not a company-keeper, lived in Shoreditch, would not be debauched, & if invited to court, he was in paine.” Against this testimony to the correctness of Shakespeare’s morals are to be placed an anecdote of a green-room amour picked up by a Middle Temple student in 1602 and a Restoration scandal which made him the father by the hostess of the Crown Inn at Oxford, where he baited on his visits to Stratford, of Sir William Davenant, who was born in February 1606. His credit at court is implied by Ben Jonson’s references to his flights “that so did take Eliza and our James,” and by stories of the courtesies which passed between him and Elizabeth while he was playing a kingly part in her presence, of the origin of The Merry Wives of Windsor in her desire to see Falstaff in love, and of an autograph letter written to honour him by King James. It was noticed with some surprise by Henry Chettle that his “honied muse” dropped no “sable tear” to celebrate the death of the queen. Southampton’s patronage may have introduced him to the brilliant circle that gathered round the earl of Essex, but there is no reason to suppose that he or his company were held personally responsible for the performance of Richard II. at the command of some of the followers of Essex as a prelude to the disastrous rising of February 1601. The editors of the First Folio speak also of favours received by the author in his lifetime from William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and his brother Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery.
He appears to have been on cordial terms with his fellows of the stage. One of them, Augustine Phillips, left him a small legacy in 1605, and in his own will he paid a similar compliment to Richard Burbage, and to John Friends. Heminge and Henry Condell, who afterwards edited his plays. His relations with Ben Jonson, whom he is said by Rowe to have introduced to the world as a playwright, have been much canvassed. Jests are preserved which, even if apocryphal, indicate considerable intimacy between the two. This is not inconsistent with occasional passages of arms. The anonymous author of The Return from Parnassus (2nd part; 1602), for example, makes Kempe, the actor, allude to a “purge” which Shakespeare gave Jonson, in return for his attack on some of his rivals in The Poetaster. It has been conjectured that this purge was the description of Ajax and his humours in Troilus and Cressida. Jonson, on the other hand, who was criticism incarnate, did not spare Shakespeare either in his prologues or in his private conversation. He told Drummond of Hawthornden that “Shakspeer wanted arte.” But the verses which he contributed to the First Folio are generous enough to make all amends, and in his Discoveries (pub. 1641; written c. 1624 and later), while regretting Shakespeare’s excessive facility and the fact that he often “fell into those things, could not escape laughter,” he declares him to have been “honest and of an open and free nature,” and says that, for his own part, “I lov'd the man and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any.” According to the memoranda-book (1661–1663) of the Rev. John Ward (who became vicar of Stratford in 1662), Jonson and Michael Drayton, himself a Warwickshire poet, had been drinking with Shakespeare when he caught the fever of which he died; and Thomas Fuller (1608–1661), whose Worthies was published in 1662, gives an imaginative description of the wit combats, of which many took place between the two mighty contemporaries.
Of Shakespeare’s literary reputation during his lifetime there is ample evidence. He is probably neither the “Willy” of Spenser’s Tears of the Muses, nor the “Action” of his Colin Clout’s Come Home Again. But from the Contemporary reputation. time of the publication of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece honorific allusions to his work both as poet and dramatist, and often to himself by name, come thick and fast from writers of every kind and degree. Perhaps the most interesting of these from the biographical point of view are those contained in the Palladis Tamia, a kind of literary handbook published by Francis Meres in 1598; for Meres not only extols him as “the most excellent in both kinds [i.e. comedy and tragedy] for the stage,” and one of “the most passionate among us to bewaile and bemoane the perplexities of Love,” but also takes the trouble to give a list of twelve plays already written, which serves as a starting-point for all modern attempts at a chronological arrangement of his work. It is moreover from Meres that we first hear of “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.” Two of these sonnets were printed in 1599 in a volume of miscellaneous verse called The Passionate Pilgrim. This was ascribed upon the title-page to Shakespeare, but probably, so far as most of its contents were concerned, without justification. The bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets remained unpublished until 1609.
About 1610 Shakespeare seems to have left London, and entered upon the definite occupation of his house at New Place, Stratford. Here he lived the life of a retired gentleman, on friendly if satirical terms with the Last years. richest of his neighbours, the Combes, and interested in local affairs, such as a bill for the improvement of the highways in 1611, or a proposed enclosure of the open fields at Welcombe in 1614, which might affect his income or his comfort. He had his garden with its mulberry-tree, and his farm in the immediate neighbourhood. His brothers Gilbert and Richard were still alive; the latter died in 1613. His sister Joan had married William Hart, a hatter, and in 1616 was dwelling in one of his houses in Henley Street. Of his daughters, the eldest, Susanna, had married in 1607 John Hall (d. 1635), a physician of some reputation. They dwelt in Stratford, and had one child, Elizabeth, afterwards Lady Barnard (1608–1670). The younger, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a vintner, also of Stratford, two months before her father’s death. At Stratford the last few of the plays may have been written, but it is reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare’s connexion with the King’s company ended when the Globe was burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII. on the 29th of June 1613. Certainly his retirement did not imply an absolute break with London life. In 1613 he devised an impresa, or emblem, to be painted by Richard Burbage, and worn in the tilt on Accession day by the earl of Rutland, who had been one of the old circle of Southampton and Essex. In the same year he purchased for £140 a freehold house in the Blackfriars, near the Wardrobe. This was conveyed to trustees, apparently in order to bar the right which his widow would otherwise have had to dower. In 1615 this purchase involved Shakespeare in a lawsuit for the surrender of the title-deeds. Richard Davies, a Gloucestershire clergyman of the end of the 17th century, reports that the poet “died a papist,” and the statement deserves more attention than it has received from biographers. There is indeed little to corroborate it; for an alleged “spiritual testament” of John Shakespeare is of suspected origin, and Davies’s own words suggest a late conversion rather than an hereditary faith. On the other hand, there is little to refute it beyond an entry in the accounts of Stratford corporation for drink given in 1614 to “a preacher at the Newe Place.”
Shakespeare made his will on the 25th of March 1616, apparently in some haste, as the executed deed is a draft with many erasures and interlineations. There were legacies to his daughter Judith Quiney and his sister Joan Hart, Will. and remembrances to friends both in Warwickshire and in London; but the real estate was left to his sister Susanna Hall under a strict entail which points to a desire on the part of the testator to found a family. Shakespeare’s wife, for whom other provision must have been made, is only mentioned in an interlineation, by which the “second best bed with the furniture” was bequeathed to her. Much nonsense has been written about this, but it seems quite natural. The best bed was an important chattel, which would go with the house. The estate was after all not a large one. Aubrey’s estimate of its annual value as £200 or £300 a year sounds reasonable enough, and John Ward’s statement that Shakespeare spent £1000 a year must surely be an exaggeration. The sum-total of his known investments amounts to £960. Mr Sidney Lee calculates that his theatrical income must have reached £600 a year; but it may be doubted whether this also is not a considerable overestimate. It must be remembered that the purchasing value of money in the 17th century is generally regarded as having been about eight times its present value. Shakespeare’s interest in the “houses” of the Globe and Blackfriars probably determined on his death.
A month after his will was signed, on the 23rd of April 1616, Shakespeare died, and as a tithe-owner was buried in the chancel of the parish church. Some doggerel upon the stone that covers the grave has been assigned by local tradition to his own pen. A more elaborate monument, with a bust by the sculptor Gerard Death. Johnson, was in due course set up on the chancel wall. Anne Shakespeare followed her husband on the 6th of August 1623. The family was never founded. Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Hall, made two childless marriages, the first with Thomas Nash of Stratford, the second with John, afterwards Sir John, Barnard of Abington Manor, Northants. His daughter Judith Quiney had three sons, all of whom had died unmarried by 1639. There were, therefore, no direct descendants of Shakespeare in existence after Lady Barnard’s death in 1670. Those of his sister, Joan Hart, could however still be traced in 1864. On Lady Barnard’s death the Henley Street houses passed to the Harts, in whose family they remained until 1806. They were then sold, and in 1846 were bought for the public. They are now held with Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery as the Birthplace Trust. Lady Barnard had disposed of the Blackfriars house. The rest of the property was sold under the terms of her will, and New Place passed, first to the Cloptons who rebuilt it, and then to the Rev. Francis Gastrell, who pulled it down in 1759. The site now forms a public recreation-ground, and hard by is a memorial building with a theatre in which performances of Shakespeare’s plays are given annually in April. Both the Memorial and the Birthplace contain museums, in which books, documents and portraits of Shakespearian interest, together with relics of greater or less authenticity, are stored.
No letter or other writing in Shakespeare’s hand can be proved to exist, with the exception of three signatures upon his will, one upon a deposition (May 11, 1612) in a lawsuit with which he was remotely concerned, and two upon deeds (March 10 and 11, 1613) in connexion with the purchase of his Blackfriars house. A copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne (1603) in the British Museum, a copy of the Aldine edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1502) in the Bodleian, and a copy of the 1612 edition of Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romaines in the Greenock Library, have all been put forward with some plausibility as bearing his autograph name or initials, and, in the third case, a marginal note by him. A passage in the manuscript of the play of Sir Thomas More has been ascribed to him (vide infra), and, if the play is his, might be in his handwriting. Aubrey records that he was “a handsome, well-shap't man,” and the lameness attributed to him by some writers has its origin only in a too literal interpretation of certain references to spiritual disabilities in the Sonnets.
A collection of Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies was printed at the press of William and Isaac Jaggard, and issued by a group of booksellers in 1623. This volume is known as the First Folio. It has Dramas. dedications to the carls of Pembroke and Montgomery, and to “the great Variety of Readers,” both of which are signed by two of Shakespeare’s “fellows” at the Globe, John Heminge and Henry Condell, and commendatory verses by Ben Jonson, Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges and an unidentified I. M. The Droeshout engraving forms part of the title-page. The contents include, with the exception of Pericles, all of the thirty-seven plays now ordinarily printed in editions of Shakespeare’s works. Of these eighteen were here published for the first time. The other eighteen had already appeared in one or more separate editions, known as the Quartos.
The following list gives the date of the First Quarto of each such play, and also that of any later Quarto which differs materially from the First.
|The Quarto Editions.|
Titus Andronicus (1594).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600).
Entries in the Register of copyrights kept by the Company of Stationers indicate that editions of As You Like It and Anthony and Cleopatra were contemplated but not published in 1600 and 1608 respectively.
The Quartos differ very much in character. Some of them contain texts which are practically identical with those of the First Folio; others show variations so material as to suggest that some revision, either by rewriting or by shortening for stage purposes, took place. Amongst the latter are 2, 3 Henry VI., Richard III., Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet and King Lear. Many scholars doubt whether the Quarto versions of 2, 3 Henry VI., which appeared under the titles of The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, are Shakespeare’s work at all. It seems clear that the Quartos of The Troublesome Reign of John King of England (1591) and The Taming of A Shrew (1594), although treated for copyright purposes as identical with the plays of King John and The Taming of the Shrew, which he founded upon them, are not his. The First Quartos of Romeo and Juliet, Henry V., The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet seem to be mainly based, not upon written texts of the plays, but upon versions largely made up out of shorthand notes taken at the theatre by the agents of a piratical bookseller. A similar desire to exploit the commercial value of Shakespeare’s reputation probably led to the appearance of his name or initials upon the title-pages of Locrine (1595), Sir John Oldcastle (1600), Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602), The London Prodigal (1605), The Puritan (1607), A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608), and Pericles (1609). It is not likely that, with the exception of the last three acts of Pericles, he wrote any part of these plays, some of which were not even produced by his company. They were not included in the First Folio of 1623, nor in a reprint of it in 1632, known as the Second Folio; but all seven were appended to the second issue (1664) of the Third Folio (1663), and to the Fourth Folio of 1685. Shakespeare is named as joint author with John Fletcher on the title-page of The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634), and with William Rowley on that of The Birth of Merlin (1662); there is no reason for rejecting the former ascription or for accepting the latter. Late entries in the Stationers' Register assign to him Cardenio (with Fletcher), Henry I. and Henry II. (both with Robert Davenport), King Stephen, Duke Humphrey, and Iphis and Ianthe; but none of these plays is now extant. Modern conjecture has attempted to trace his hand in other plays, of which Arden of Feversham (1592), Edward III. (1596), Mucedorus (1598), and The Merry Devil of Edmonton (1608) are the most important; it is quite possible that he may have had a share in Edward III. A play on Sir Thomas More, which has been handed down in manuscript, contains a number of passages, interpolated in various handwritings, to meet requirements of the censor; and there are those who assign one of these (ii. 4, 1-172) to Shakespeare.
Unfortunately the First Folio does not give the dates at which the plays contained in it were written or produced; and the endeavour to supply this deficiency has been one of the main preoccupations of more than a century of Shakespearian scholarship, since the pioneer essay of Edmund Malone in his An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays of Shakespeare were Written (1778). The investigation is not a Dates. mere piece of barren antiquarianism, for on it depends the possibility of appreciating the work of the world’s greatest poet, not as if it were an articulated whole like a philosophical system, but in its true aspect as the reflex of a vital and constantly developing personality. A starting-point is afforded by the dates of the Quartos and the entries in the Stationers' Register which refer to them, and by the list of plays already in existence in 1598 which is inserted by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia of that year, and which, while not necessarily exhaustive of Shakespeare’s pre-1598 writing, includes The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II., Richard III., Henry IV., King John, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, as well as a mysterious Love’s Labour’s Won, which has been conjecturally identified with several plays, but most plausibly with The Taming of the Shrew. There is a mass of supplementary evidence, drawn partly from definite notices in other writings or in diaries, letters, account-books, and similar records, partly from allusions to contemporary persons and events in the plays themselves, partly from parallels of thought and expression between each play and those near to it in point of time, and partly from considerations of style, including the so-called metrical tests, which depend upon an analysis of Shakespeare’s varying feeling for rhythm at different stages of his career. The total result is certainly not a demonstration, but in the logical sense an hypothesis which serves to colligate the facts and is consistent with itself and with the known events of Shakespeare’s external life.
The following table, which is an attempt to arrange the original dates of production of the plays without regard to possible revisions, may be taken as fairly representing the common results of recent scholarship. It is framed on the assumption that, as indeed John Ward tells us was the case, Shakespeare ordinarily wrote two plays a year; but it will be understood that neither the order in which the plays are given nor the distribution of them over the years lays claim to more than approximate accuracy.
|Chronology of the Plays.|
A more detailed account of the individual plays may now be attempted. The figures here prefixed correspond to those in the table above.
1, 2. The relation of The Contention of York and Lancaster to 2, 3 Henry VI. and the extent of Shakespeare’s responsibility for either or both works have long been subjects of controversy. The extremes of critical opinion are to Composition. be found in a theory which regards Shakespeare as the sole author of 2, 3 Henry VI. and The Contention as a shortened and piratical version of the original plays, and in a theory which regards The Contention as written in collaboration by Marlowe, Greene and possibly Peele, and 2, 3 Henry VI. as a revision of The Contention written, also in collaboration, by Marlowe and Shakespeare. A comparison of the two texts leaves it hardly possible to doubt that the differences between them are to be explained by revision rather than by piracy; but the question of authorship is more difficult. Greene’s parody, in the “Shake-scene” passage of his Groats-worth of Wit (1592), of a line which occurs both in The Contention and in 3 Henry VI., while it clearly suggests Shakespeare’s connexion with the plays, is evidence neither for nor against the participation of other men, and no sufficient criterion exists for distinguishing between Shakespeare’s earliest writing and that of possible collaborators on grounds of style. But there is nothing inconsistent between the reviser’s work in 2, 3 Henry VI. and on the one hand Richard III. or on the other the original matter of The Contention, which the reviser follows and elaborates scene by scene. It is difficult to assign to any one except Shakespeare the humour of the Jack Cade scenes, the whole substance of which is in The Contention as well as in Henry VI. Views which exclude Shakespeare altogether may be left out of account. Henry VI. is not in Meres’s list of his plays, but its inclusion in the First Folio is an almost certain ground for assigning to him some share, if only as reviser, in the completed work.
3. A very similar problem is afforded by 1 Henry VI., and here also it is natural, in the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary, to hold by Shakespeare’s substantial responsibility for the play as it stands. It is quite possible that it also may be a revised version, although in this case no earlier version exists; and if so the Talbot scenes (iv. 2-7) and perhaps also the Temple Gardens scene (ii. 4), which are distinguished by certain qualities of style from the rest of the play, may date from the period of revision. Thomas Nash refers to the representation of Talbot on the stage in his Pierce Penilesse, his Supplication to the Divell (1592), and it is probable that 1 Henry VI. is to be identified with the “Harey the vj.” recorded in Henslowe’s Diary to have been acted as a new play by Lord Strange’s men, probably at the Rose, on the 3rd of March 1592. If so, it is a reasonable conjecture that the two parts of The Contention were originally written at some date before the beginning of Henslowe’s record in the previous February, and were revised so as to fall into a series with 1 Henry VI. in the latter end of 1592.
4. The series as revised can only be intended to lead directly up to Richard III., and this relationship, together with its style as compared with that of the plays belonging to the autumn of 1594, suggest the short winter season of 1592–1593 as the most likely time for the production of Richard III. There is a difficulty in that it is not included in Henslowe’s list of the plays acted by Lord Strange’s men during that season. But it may quite well have been produced by the only other company which appeared at court during the Christmas festivities, Lord Pembroke’s. The mere fact that Shakespeare wrote a play, or more than one play, for Lord Strange’s men during 1592–1594 does not prove that he never wrote for any other company during the same period; and indeed there is plenty of room for guess-work as to the relations between Strange’s and Pembroke’s men. The latter are not known to have existed before 1592, and many difficulties would be solved by the assumption that they originated out of a division of Strange’s, whose numbers, since their amalgamation with the Admiral’s, may have been too much inflated to enable them to undertake as a whole the summer tour of that year. If so, Pembroke’s probably took over the Henry VI. series of plays, since The Contention, or at least the True Tragedy, was published as performed by them, and completed it with Richard III. on their return to London at Christmas. It will be necessary to return to this theory in connexion with the discussion of Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew. The principal historical source for Henry VI. was Edward Hall’s The Union of the Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1542), and for Richard III., as for all Shakespeare’s later historical plays, the second edition (1587) of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577). An earlier play, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third (1594), seems to have contributed little if anything to Richard III.
5. Many scholars think that at any rate the greater part of the first two acts of Edward III., containing the story of Edward’s wooing of the countess of Salisbury, are by Shakespeare; and, if so, it is to about the time of Richard III. that the style of his contribution seems to belong. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on December 1, 1595. The Shakespearian scenes are based on the 46th Novel in William Paynter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566). The line, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (ii. I. 451), is repeated verbatim in the 94th sonnet.
6. To the winter season of 1592–1593 may also be assigned with fair probability Shakespeare’s first experimental comedy, The Comedy of Errors, and if his writing at one and the same time for Pembroke’s and for another company is not regarded as beyond the bounds of conjecture, it becomes tempting to identify this with “the gelyous comodey” produced, probably by Strange’s men, for Henslowe as a new play on January 5, 1593. The play contains a reference to the wars of succession in France which would fit any date from 1589 to 1594. The plot is taken from the Menaechmi, and to a smaller extent from the Amphitruo of Plautus. William Warner’s translation of the Menaechmi was entered in the Stationers' Register on June 10, 1594. A performance of The Comedy of Errors by “a company of base and common fellows” (including Shakespeare?) is recorded in the Gesta Grayorum as taking place in Gray’s Inn hall on December 28, 1594.
7. Titus Andronicus is another play in which many scholars
have refused to see the hand of Shakespeare, but the double
testimony of its inclusion in Meres’s list and in the First Folio
makes it unreasonable to deny him some part in it. This may,
however, only have been the part of a reviser, working, like the
reviser of The Contention, upon the dialogue rather than the
structure of a crude tragedy of the school of Kyd. In fact a
stage tradition is reported by Edward Ravenscroft, a late
17th-century adapter of the play, to the effect that Shakespeare
did no more than give a few “master-touches” to the work of a
“private author.” The play was entered in the Stationers'
Register on February 6, 1594, and was published in the same
year with a title-page setting out that it had been acted by the
companies of Lords Derby (i.e. Strange, who had succeeded to
his father’s title on September 25, 1593), Pembroke and Sussex.
It is natural to take this list as indicating the order in which the
three companies named had to do with it, but it is probable that
only Sussex’s had played Shakespeare’s version. Henslowe records
the production by this company of Titus
as a new play on January 23, 1594, only a few days before
the theatres were closed by plague. For the purposes of Henslowe’s
financial arrangements with the company a rewritten
play may have been classed as new. Two years earlier he had
appended the same description to a play of Ti ttus and Vespacia,
produced by Strange’s men on April 11, 1592. At first sight the
title suggests a piece founded on the lives of the emperor Titus
and Vespasian, but the identification of the play with an early
version of Titus Andronicus is justified by the existence of a rough
German adaptation, which follows the general outlines of
Shakespeare’s play, but in which one of the sons of Titus is named
Vespasian instead of Lucius. The ultimate source of the plot is
unknown. It cannot be traced in any of the Byzantine chroniclers.
Strange’s men seem to have been still playing Titus in January
1593, and it was probably not transferred to Pembroke’s until the
companies were driven from London by the plague of that year.
Pembroke’s are known from a letter of Henslowe’s to have been
ruined by August, and it is to be suspected that Sussex’s, who
appeared in London for the first time at the Christmas of 1593,
acquired their stock of plays and transferred these to the
Chamberlain’s men, when the companies were again reconstituted in the
summer of 1594. The revision of Titus and Vespasian into
Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare may have been accomplished
in the interval between these two transactions. The Chamberlain’s
men were apparently playing Andronicus in June. The
stock of Pembroke’s men probably included, as well as Titus
and Vespasian, both Henry VI. and Richard III., which also
thus passed to the Chamberlain’s company.
8. In the same way was probably also acquired an old play of The Taming of A Shrew. This, which can be traced back as far as 1589, was published as acted by Pembroke’s men in 1594. In June of that year it was being acted by the Chamberlain’s, but more probably in the revised version by Shakespeare, which bears the slightly altered title of The Taming of The Shrew. This is a much more free adaptation of its original than had been attempted in the case of Henry VI., and the Warwickshire allusions in the Induction are noteworthy. Some critics have doubted whether Shakespeare was the sole author of The Shrew, and others have assigned him a share in A Shrew, but neither theory has any very substantial foundation. The origins of the play, which is to be classed as a farce rather than a comedy, are to be found ultimately in widely distributed folk-tales, and more immediately in Ariosto’s I Suppositi (1509) as translated in George Gascoigne’s The Supposes (1566). It may have been Shakespeare’s first task for the newly established Chamberlain’s company of 1504 to furbish up the old farce. Thenceforward there is no reason to think that he ever wrote for any other company.
9. Love’s Labour’s Lost has often been regarded as the first of Shakespeare’s plays, and has sometimes been placed as early as 1589. There is, however, no proof that Shakespeare was writing before 1592 or thereabouts. The characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost are evidently suggested by Henry of Navarre, his followers Biron and Longaville, and the Catholic League leader, the duc de Maine. These personages would have been familiar at any time from 1585 onwards. The absence of the play from the lists in Henslowe’s Diary does not leave it impossible that it should have preceded the formation of the Chamberlain’s company, but certainly renders this less likely; and its lyric character perhaps justifies its being grouped with the series of plays that began in the autumn of 1594. No entry of the play is found in the Stationers' Register, and it is quite possible that the present First Quarto of 1598 was not really the first edition. The title-page professes to give the play as it was “corrected and augmented” for the Christmas either of 1597 or of 1598. It was again revived for that of 1604. No literary source is known for its incidents.
10. Romeo and Juliet, which was published in 1597 as played by Lord Hunsdon’s men, was probably produced somewhat before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as its incidents seem to have suggested the parody of the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude. An attempt to date it in 1591 is hardly justified by the Nurse’s references to an earthquake eleven years before and the fact that there was a real earthquake in London in 1580. The text seems to have been partly revised before the issue of the Second Quarto in 1599. There had been an earlier play on the subject, but the immediate source used by Shakespeare was Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem Romeus and Juliet (1562).
11. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its masque-like scenes of fairydom and the epithalamium at its close, has all the air of having been written less for the public stage than for some courtly wedding; and the compliment paid by Oberon to the “fair vestal throned by the west” makes it probable that it was a wedding at which Elizabeth was present. Two fairly plausible occasions have been suggested. The wedding of Mary countess of Southampton with Sir Thomas Heneage on the 2nd of May 1594 would fit the May-day setting of the plot; but a widowed countess hardly answers to the “little western flower” of the allegory, and there are allusions to events later in 1594 and in particular to the rainy weather of June and July, which indicate a somewhat later date. The wedding of William Stanley, earl of Derby, brother of the lord Strange for whose players Shakespeare had written, and Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the earl of Oxford, which took place at Greenwich on the 26th of January 1595, perhaps fits the conditions best. It has been fancied that Shakespeare was present when “certain stars shot madly from their spheres” in the Kenilworth fireworks of 1575, but if he had any such entertainment in mind it is more likely to have been the more recent one given to Elizabeth by the earl of Hertford at Elvetham in 1591. There appears to be no special source for the play beyond Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and the widespread fairy lore of western Europe.
12. No very definite evidence exists for the date of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, other than the mention of it in Palladis Tamia. It is evidently a more rudimentary essay in the genre of romantic comedy than The Merchant of Venice, with which it has other affinities in its Italian colouring and its use of the interrelations of love and friendship as a theme; and it may therefore be roughly assigned to the neighbourhood of 1595. The plot is drawn from various examples of contemporary fiction, especially from the story of the shepherdess Filismena in Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559). A play of Felix and Philiomena had already been given at court in 1585.
13. King John is another play for which 1595 seems a likely date, partly on account of its style, and partly from the improbability of a play on an independent subject drawn from English history being interpolated in the middle either of the Yorkist or of the Lancastrian series. It would seem that Shakespeare had before him an old play of the Queen’s men, called The Troublesome Reign of King John. This was published in 1591, and again, with “W. Sh.” on the title-page, in 1611. For copyright purposes King John appears to have been regarded as a revision of The Troublesome Reign, and in fact the succession of incidents in the two plays is much the same. Shakespeare’s dialogue, however, owes little or nothing to that of his predecessor.
14. Richard II. can be dated with some accuracy by a comparison of the two editions of Samuel Daniel’s narrative poem on The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York, both of which bear the date of 1595 and were therefore issued between March 25, 1595 and March 24, 1596 of the modern reckoning. The second of these editions, but not the first, contains some close parallels to the play. From the first two quartos of Richard II., published in 1597 and 1598, the deposition scene was omitted, although it was clearly part of the original structure of the play, and its removal leaves an obvious mutilation in the text. There is some reason to suppose that this was due to a popular tendency to draw seditious parallels between Richard and Elizabeth; and it became one of the charges against the earl of Essex and his fellow-conspirators in the abortive émeute of February 1601, that they had procured a performance of a play on Richard’s fate in order to stimulate their followers. As the actors were the Lord Chamberlain’s men, this play can hardly have been any other than Shakespeare’s. The deposition scene was not printed until after Elizabeth’s death, in the Third Quarto of 1608.
15. The Merchant of Venice, certainly earlier than July 22, 1598, on which date it was entered in the Stationers' Register, and possibly inspired by the machinations of the Jew poisoner Roderigo Lopez, (who was executed in June 1594, shows a considerable advance in comic and melodramatic power over any of the earlier plays, and is assigned by a majority of scholars to about 1596. The various stories of which its plot is compounded are based upon common themes of folk-tales and Italian novelle. It is possible that Shakespeare may have had before him a play called The Jew, of which there are traces as early as 1579, and in which motives illustrating “the greedinesse of worldly chusers” and the “bloody mindes of usurers” appear to have been already combined. Something may also be owing to Marlowe’s play of The Jew of Malta.
16, 17. The existence of Richard II. is assumed throughout in Henry IV., which probably therefore followed it after no long interval. The first part was published in 1598, the second not until 1600, but both parts must have been in existence before the entry of the first part in the Stationers' Register on February 25th 1598, since Falstaff is named in this entry, and a slip in a speech-prefix of the second part, which was not entered in the Register until August 23rd 1600, betrays that it was written when the character still bore the name of Sir John Oldcastle. Richard James, in his dedication to The Legend of Sir John Oldcastle about 1625, and Rowe in 1709 both bear witness to the substitution of the one personage for the other, which Rowe ascribes to the intervention of Elizabeth, and James to that of some descendants of Oldcastle, one of whom was probably Lord Cobham. There is an allusion to the incident and an acknowledgment of the wrong done to the famous Lollard martyr in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV. itself. Probably Shakespeare found Oldcastle, with very little else that was of service to him, in an old play called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which had been acted by Tarlton and the Queen’s men at least as far back as 1588, and of which an edition was printed in 1598. Falstaff himself is a somewhat libellous presentment of the 15th century leader, Sir John Fastolf, who had already figured in Henry VI.; but presumably Fastolf has no titled descendants alive in 1598.
18. An entry in the Stationers' Register during 1600 shows that Much Ado About Nothing was in existence, although its publication was then directed to be “stayed.” It may plausibly be regarded as the earliest play not included in Meres’s list. In 1613 it was revived before James I. under the alternative title of Benedick and Beatrice. Dogberry is said by Aubrey to have been taken from a constable at Grendori in Buckinghamshire. There is no very definite literary source for the play, although some of its incidents are to be found in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Bandello’s novelle, and attempts have been made to establish relationships between it and two early German plays, Jacob Ayrer’s Die Schöne Phoenicia and the Vincentius Ladiszlaus of Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick.
19. The completion of the Lancastrian series of histories by Henry V. can be safely placed in or about 1599, since there is an allusion in one of the choruses to the military operations in Ireland of the earl of Essex,who crossed on March 27 and returned on September 28, 1599. The First Quarto, which was first “stayed” with Much Ado About Nothing and then published in 1600, is a piratical text, and does not include the choruses. A genuine and perhaps slightly revised version was first published in the First Folio.
20. That Julius Caesar also belongs to 1599 is shown, not only by its links with Henry V. but also by an allusion to it in John Weever’s Mirror of Martyrs, a work written two years before its publication in 1601, and by a notice of a performance on September 21st, 1599 by Thomas Platter of Basel in an account of a visit to London. This was the first of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and, like those that followed, was based upon Plutarch’s Lives as translated from the French of Jacques Amyot and published by Sir Thomas North in 1580. It was also Shakespeare’s first tragedy since Romeo and Juliet.
21. It is reported by John Dennis, in the preface to The Comical Gallant (1702), that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at the express desire of Elizabeth, who wished to see Falstaff in love, and was finished by Shakespeare in the space of a fortnight. A date at the end of 1599 or the beginning of 1600, shortly after the completion of the historical Falstaff plays, would be the most natural one for this enterprise, and with such a date the evidence of style agrees. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on January 18th, 1602. The First Quarto of the same year appears to contain an earlier version of the text than that of the First Folio. Among the passages omitted in the revision was an allusion to the adventures of the duke of Württemberg and count of Mompelgard, whose attempts to secure the Garter had brought him into notice. The Windsor setting makes it possible that The Merry Wives was produced at a Garter feast, and perhaps with the assistance of the children of Windsor Chapel in the fairy parts. The plot has its analogies to various incidents in Italian novelle and in English adaptations of these.
22. As You Like It was one of the plays “stayed” from publication in 1600, and cannot therefore be later than that year. Some trifling bits of evidence suggest that it is not earlier than 1599. The plot is based upon Thomas Lodge’s romance of Rosalynde (1590), and this in part upon the pseudo-Chaucerian Tale of Gamelyn.
23. A play of Hamlet was performed, probably by the Chamberlain’s men, for Henslowe at Newington Butts on the 9th of June 1594. There are other references to it as a revenge-play, and it seems to have been in existence in some shape as early as 1589. It was doubtless on the basis of this that Shakespeare constructed his tragedy. Some features of the so-called Ur-Hamlet may perhaps be traceable in the German play of Der bestrafte Brudermord. There is an allusion in Hamlet to the rivalry between the ordinary stages and the private plays given by boy actors, which points to a date during the vogue of the children of the Chapel, whose performance began late in 1600, and another to an inhibition of plays on account of a “late innovation,” by which the Essex rising of February 1601 may be meant. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on July 26, 1602. The First Quarto was printed in 1603 and the Second Quarto in 1604. These editions contain texts whose differences from each other and from that of the First Folio are so considerable as to suggest, even when allowance has been made for the fact that the First Quarto is probably a piratical venture, that the play underwent an exceptional amount of rewriting at Shakespeare’s hands. The title-page of the First Quarto indicates that the earliest version was acted in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere, as well as in London. The ultimate source of the plot is to be found in Scandinavian legends preserved in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, and transmitted to Shakespeare or his predecessor through the Histoires tragiques (1570) of François de Belleforest (see Hamlet).
24. Twelfth Night may be fairly placed in 1601–1602, since it quotes part of a song included in Robert Jones’s First Book of Songs and Airs (1600), and is recorded by John Manningham to have been seen by him at a feast in the Middle Temple hall on February 2nd, 1602. The principal source of the plot was Barnabe Riche’s “History of Apolonius and Silla” in his Farewell to Military Profession (1581).
25. Few of the plays present so many difficulties as Troilus and Cressida, and it cannot be said that its literary history has as yet been thoroughly worked out. A play of the name, “as yt is acted by my Lord Chamberlens men” was entered in the Stationers' Register on February 7th, 1603, with a note that “sufficient authority” must be got by the publisher, James Roberts, before he printed it. This can hardly be any other than Shakespeare’s play; but it must have been “stayed,” for the First Quarto did not appear until 1609, and on the 28th of January of that year a fresh entry had been made in the Register by another publisher. The text of the Quarto differs in certain respects from that of the Folio, but not to a greater extent than the use of different copies of the original manuscript might explain. Two alternative title-pages are found in copies of the Quarto. On one, probably the earliest, is a statement that the play was printed “as it was acted by the Kings Maiesties seruants at the Globe”; from the other these words are omitted, and a preface is appended which hints that the “grand possessors” of the play had made difficulties about its publication, and describes it as “never staled with the stage.” Attempts have been made, mainly on grounds of style, to find another hand than Shakespeare’s in the closing scenes and in the prologue, and even to assign widely different dates to various parts of what is ascribed to Shakespeare. But the evidence does not really bear out these theories, and the style of the whole must be regarded as quite consistent with a date in 1601 or 1602. The more probable year is 1602, if, as seems not unlikely, the description of Ajax and his humours in the second scene of the first act is Shakespeare’s “purge” to Jonson in reply to the Poetaster (1601), alluded to, as already mentioned, in the Return from Parnassus, a Cambridge play acted probably at the Christmas of 1602–1603 (rather than, as is usually asserted, 1601–1602). It is tempting to conjecture that Troilus and Cressida may have been played, like Hamlet, by the Chamberlain’s men at Cambridge, but may never have been taken to London, and in this sense “never staled with the stage.” The only difficulty of a date in 1602 is that a parody of a play on Troilus and Cressida is introduced into Histriomastix (c. 1599), and that in this Troilus “shakes his furious speare.” But Henslowe had produced another play on the subject, by Dekker and Chettle, in 1599, and probably, therefore, no allusion to Shakespeare is really intended. The material for Troilus and Cressida was taken by Shakespeare from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, and Chapman’s Homer.
26. It is almost wholly on grounds of style that All’s Well that Ends Well is placed by most critics in or about 1602, and, as in the case of Troilus and Cressida, it has been argued, though with little justification, that parts of the play are of considerably earlier date, and perhaps represent the Love’s Labour’s Won referred to by Meres. The story is derived from Boccaccio’s Decameron through the medium of William Paynter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566).
27. Measure for Measure is believed to have been played at court on the 26th of December 1604. The evidence for this is to be found, partly in an extract made for Malone from official records now lost, and partly in a forged document, which may, however, rest upon genuine information, placed amongst the account-books of the Office of the Revels. If this is correct the play was probably produced when the theatres were reopened after the plague in 1604. The plot is taken from a story already used by George Whetstone, both in his play of Promos and Cassandra (1578) and in his prose Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582), and borrowed by him from Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1566).
28. A performance at court of Othello on November 1, 1604, is noted in the same records as those quoted with regard to Measure for Measure, and the play may be reasonably assigned to the same year. An alleged performance at Harefield in 1602 certainly rests upon a forgery. The play was revived in 1610 and seen by Prince Louis of Württemberg at the Globe on April 30 of that year. It was entered in the Stationers' Register on October 6, 1621, and a First Quarto was published in 1622. The text of this is less satisfactory than that of the First Folio, and omits a good many lines found therein and almost certainly belonging to the play as first written. It also contains some profane expressions which have been modified in the Folio, and thereby points to a date for the original production earlier than the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players passed in the spring of 1606. The plot, like that of Measure for Measure, comes from the Hecatommithi (1566) of Giraldi Cinthio.
29. Macbeth cannot, in view of its obvious allusions to James I., be of earlier date than 1603. The style and some trifling allusions point to about 1605 or 1606, and a hint for the theme may have been given by Matthew Gwynne’s entertainment of the Tres Sibyllae, with which James was welcomed to Oxford on August 27, 1605. The play was revived in 1610 and Simon Forman saw it at the Globe on April 20. The only extant text, that of the First Folio, bears traces of shortening, and has been interpolated with additional rhymed dialogues for the witches by a second hand, probably that of Thomas Middleton. But the extent of Middleton’s contribution has been exaggerated; it is probably confined to act iii. sc. 5, and a few lines in act. iv. sc. 1. A ballad of Macdobeth was entered in the Stationers' Register on August 27, 1596, but is not known. It is not likely that Shakespeare had consulted any Scottish history other than that included in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle; he may have gathered witchlore from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or King James’s own Demonologie (1599).
30. The entry of King Lear in the Stationers' Register on November 26, 1607, records the performance of the play at court on December 26, 1606. This suggests 1605 or 1606 as the date of production, and this is confirmed by the publication in 1605 of the older play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, which Shakespeare used as his source. Two Quartos of King Lear were published in 1608, and contain a text rather longer, but in other respects less accurate, than that of the First Folio. The material of the play consists of fragments of Celtic myth, which found their way into history through Geoffrey of Monmouth. It was accessible to Shakespeare in Holinshed and in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, as well as in the old play.
31. It is not quite clear whether Antony and Cleopatra was the play of that name entered in the Stationers' Register on May 20, 1608, for no Quarto is extant, and a fresh entry was made in the Register before the issue of the First Folio. Apart from this entry, there is little external evidence to fix the date of the play, but it is in Shakespeare’s later, although not his last manner, and may very well belong to 1606.
32. In the case of Coriolanus the external evidence available is even scantier, and all that can be said is that its closest affinities are to Antony and Cleopatra, which in all probability it directly followed or preceded in order of composition. Both plays, like Julius Caesar, are based upon the Lives of Plutarch, as Englished by Sir Thomas North.
33. There is no external evidence as to the date of Timon of Athens, but it may safely be grouped on the strength of its internal characteristics with the plays just named, and there is a clear gulf between it and those that follow. It may be placed provisionally in 1607. The critical problems which it presents have never been thoroughly worked out. The extraordinary incoherencies of its action and inequalities of its style have prevented modern scholars from accepting it as a finished production of Shakespeare, but there agreement ceases. It is sometimes regarded as an incomplete draft for an intended play; sometimes as a Shakespearian fragment worked over by a second hand either for the stage or for printing in the First Folio; sometimes, but not very plausibly, as an old play by an inferior writer which Shakespeare had partly remodelled. It does not seem to have had any relations to an extant academic play of Timon which remained in manuscript until 1842. The sources are to be found, partly in Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius, partly in Lucian’s dialogue of Timon or Misanthropes, and partly in William Paynter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566).
34. Similar difficulties, equally unsolved, cling about Pericles. It was entered in the Stationers' Register on May 20, 1608, and published in 1609 as “the late and much admired play” acted by the King’s men at the Globe. The title-page bears Shakespeare’s name, but the play was not included in the First Folio, and was only added to Shakespeare’s collected works in the Third Folio, in company with others which, although they also had been printed under his name or initials in quarto form, are certainly not his. In 1608 was published a prose story, The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre. This claims to be the history of the play as it was presented by the King’s players, and is described in a dedication by George Wilkins as “a poore infant of my braine.” The production of the play is therefore to be put in 1608 or a little earlier. It can hardly be doubted on internal evidence that Shakespeare is the author of the verse-scenes in the last three acts, with the exception of the doggerel choruses. It is probable, although it has been doubted, that he was also the author of the prose-scenes in those acts. To the first two acts he can at most only have contributed a touch or two. It seems reasonable to suppose that the non-Shakespearian part of the play is by Wilkins, by whom other dramatic work was produced about 1607. The prose story quotes a line or two from Shakespeare’s contribution, and it follows that this must have been made by 1608. The close resemblances of the style to that of Shakespeare’s latest plays make it impossible to place it much earlier. But whether Shakespeare and Wilkins collaborated in the play, or Shakespeare partially rewrote Wilkins, or Wilkins completed Shakespeare, must be regarded as yet undetermined. Unless there was an earlier Shakespearian version now lost, Dryden’s statement that “Shakespeare’s own Muse her Pericles first bore” must be held to be an error. The story is an ancient one which exists in many versions. In all of these except the play, the name of the hero is Apollonius of Tyre. The play is directly based upon a version in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and the use of Gower as a “presenter” is thereby explained. But another version in Laurence Twine’s Patterne of Painefull Adventures (c. 1576), of which a new edition appeared in 1607, may also have been consulted.
35. Cymbeline shows a further development than Pericles in the direction of Shakespeare’s final style, and can hardly have come earlier. A description of it is in a note-book of Simon Forman, who died in September 1611, and describes in the same book other plays seen by him in 1610 and 1611. But these were not necessarily new plays, and Cymbeline may perhaps be assigned conjecturally to 1609. The mask-like dream in act v. sc. 4 must be an interpolation by another hand. This play also is based upon a wide-spread story, probably known to Shakespeare in Boccaccio’s Decameron (day 2, novel 9), and possibly also in an English book of tales called Westward for Smelts. The historical part is, as usual, from Holinshed.
36. The Winter’s Tale was seen by Forman on May 15, 1611, and as it clearly belongs to the latest group of plays it may well enough have been produced in the preceding year. A document amongst the Revels Accounts, which is forged, but may rest on some authentic basis, gives November 5, 1611 as the date of a performance at court. The play is recorded to have been licensed by Sir George Buck, who began to license plays in 1607. The plot is from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the Triumph of Time, or Dorastus and Fawnia (1588).
37. The wedding-mask in act iv. of The Tempest has suggested the possibility that it may have been composed to celebrate the marriage of the princess Elizabeth and Frederick V., the elector palatine, on February 14, 1613. But Malone appears to have had evidence, now lost, that the play was performed at court as early as 1611, and the forged document amongst the Revels Accounts gives the precise date of November 1, 1611. Sylvester Jourdan’s A Discovery of the Bermudas, containing an account of the shipwreck of Sir George Somers in 1609, was published about October 1610, and this or some other contemporary narrative of Virginian colonization probably furnished the hint of the plot.
38. The tale of Shakespeare’s independent dramas is now complete, but an analysis of the Two Noble Kinsmen leaves no reason to doubt the accuracy of its ascription on the title-page of the First Quarto of 1634 to Shakespeare and John Fletcher. This appears to have been a case of ordinary collaboration. There is sufficient resemblance between the styles of the two writers to render the division of the play between them a matter of some difficulty; but the parts that may probably be assigned to Shakespeare are acts i. sec. 1-4; ii. 1; iii. 1, 2; v. 1, 3, 4. Fletcher’s morris-dance in act iii. sc. 5 is borrowed from that in Beaumont’s Mask of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, given on February 20, 1613, and the play may perhaps be dated in 1613. It is based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.
39. It may now be accepted as a settled result of scholarship that Henry VIII. is also the result of collaboration, and that one of the collaborators was Fletcher. There is no good reason to doubt that the other was Shakespeare, although attempts have been made to substitute Philip Massinger. The inclusion, however, of the play in the First Folio must be regarded as conclusive against this theory. There is some ground for suspicion that the collaborators may have had an earlier work of Shakespeare before them, and this would explain the reversion to the “history” type of play which Shakespeare had long abandoned. His share appears to consist of act i. sec. 1, 2; act ii. sec. 3, 4; act iii. sc. 2, 11. 1-203; act v. sc. i. The play was probably produced in 1613, and originally bore the alternative title of All is True. It was being performed in the Globe on June 29, 1613, when the thatch caught fire and the theatre was burnt. The principal source was Holinshed, but Hall’s Union of Lancaster and York, Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Church, and perhaps Samuel Rowley’s play of When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), appear also to have contributed.
Shakespeare’s non-dramatic writings are not numerous. The narrative poem of Venus and Adonis was entered in the Stationers' Register on April 18, 1593, and thirteen editions, dating from 1593 to 1636, are known. The Poems. Rape of Lucrece was entered in the Register on May 9, 1594, and the six extant editions range from 1594 to 1624. Each poem is prefaced by a dedicatory epistle from the author to Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton. The subjects, taken respectively from the Metamorphoses and the Fasti of Ovid, were frequent in Renaissance literature. It was once supposed that Shakespeare came from Stratford-on-Avon with Venus and Adonis in his pocket; but it is more likely that both poems owe their origin to the comparative leisure afforded to playwrights and actors by the plague-period of 1592–1594. In 1599 the stationer William Jaggard published a volume of miscellaneous verse which he called The Passionate Pilgrim, and placed Shakespeare’s name on the title-page. Only two of the pieces included herein are certainly Shakespeare’s, and although others may quite possibly be his, the authority of the volume is destroyed by the fact that some of its contents are without doubt the work of Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Barnfield and Bartholomew Griffin. In 1601 Shakespeare contributed The Phoenix and the Turtle, an elegy on an unknown pair of wedded lovers, to a volume called Love’s Martyr, or Rosalin’s Complaint, which was collected and mainly written by Robert Chester.
The interest of all these poems sinks into insignificance beside that of one remaining volume. The Sonnets were entered in the Register on May 20, 1609, by the stationer Thomas Thorpe, and published by him under the title Shakespeares Problems of the Sonnets. Sonnets, never before Imprinted, in the same year. In addition to a hundred and fifty-four sonnets, the volume contains the elegiac poem, probably dating from the Venus and Adonis period, of A Lover’s Complaint. In 1640 the Sonnets, together with other poems from The Passionate Pilgrim and elsewhere, many of them not Shakespeare’s, were republished by John Benson in Poems Written by Wil. Shakespeare, Gent. Here the sonnets are arranged in an altogether different order from that of 1609 and are declared by the publisher to “appeare of the same purity, the Authour himselfe then living avouched.” No Shakespearian controversy has received so much attention, especially during recent years, as that which concerns itself with the date, character, and literary history of the Sonnets. This is intelligible enough, since upon the issues raised depends the question whether these poems do or do not give a glimpse into the intimate depths of a personality which otherwise is at the most only imperfectly revealed through the plays. On the whole, the balance of authority is now in favour of regarding them as in a very considerable measure autobiographical. This view has undergone the fires of much destructive argument. The authenticity of the order in which the sonnets were printed in 1609 has been doubted; and their subject-matter has been variously explained as being of the nature of a philosophical allegory, of an effort of the dramatic imagination, or of a heartless exercise in the forms of the Petrarchan convention. This last theory has been recently and strenuously maintained, and may be regarded as the only one which now holds the field in opposition to the autobiographical interpretation. But it rests upon the false psychological assumption, which is disproved by the whole history of poetry and in particular of Petrarchan poetry, that the use of conventions is inconsistent with the expression of unfeigned emotions; and it is hardly to be set against the direct conviction which the sonnets carry to the most finely critical minds of the strength and sincerity of the spiritual experience out of which they were wrought. This conviction makes due allowance for the inevitable heightening of emotion itself in the act of poetic composition; and it certainly does, not carry with it a belief that all the external events which underlie the emotional development are capable at this distance of time of inferential reconstruction. But it does accept the sonnets as an actual record of a part of Shakespeare’s life during the years in which they were written, and as revealing at least the outlines of a drama which played itself out for once, not in his imagination but in his actual conduct in the world of men and women.
There is no advantage to be gained by rearranging the order of the 1609 volume, even if there were any basis other than that of individual whim on which to do so. Many of the sonnets are obviously linked to those which follow or precede them; and altogether a few may conceivably be misplaced, the order as a whole does not jar against the sense of emotional continuity, which is the only possible test that can be applied. The last two sonnets, however, are merely alternative versions of a Greek epigram, and the rest fall into two series, which are more probably parallel than successive. The shorter of these two series (cxxvii-clii.) appears to be the record of the poet’s relations with a mistress, a dark woman with raven brows and mourning eyes. In the earlier sonnets he undertakes the half-playful defence of black beauty against the blonde Elizabethan ideal; but the greater number are in a more serious vein, and are filled with a deep consciousness of the bitterness of lustful passion and of the slavery of the soul to the body. The woman is a wanton. She has broken her bed-vow for Shakespeare, who on his side is forsworn in loving her; and she is doubly forsworn in proving faithless to him with other men. His reason condemns her, but his heart has not the power to throw off her tyranny. Her particular offence is that she, “a woman coloured ill,” has cast her snares not only upon him, but upon his friend, “a man right fair,” who is his “better angel,” and that thus his loss is double, in love and friendship. The longer series (i.-cxxvi.) is written to a man, appears to extend over a considerable period of time, and covers a wide range of sentiment. The person addressed is younger than Shakespeare, and of higher rank. He is lovely, and the son of a lovely mother, and has hair like the auburn buds of marjoram. The series falls into a number of groups, which are rarely separated by any sharp lines of demarcation. Perhaps the first group (i.-xvii.) is the most distinct of all. These sonnets are a prolonged exhortation by Shakespeare to his friend to marry and beget children. The friend is now on the top of happy hours, and should make haste, before the rose of beauty dies, to secure himself in his descendants against devouring time. In the next group (xviii.-xxv.) a much more personal note is struck, and the writer assumes the attitudes, at once of the poet whose genius is to be devoted to eternizing the beauty and the honour of his patron, and of the friend whose absorbing affection is always on the point of assuming an emotional colour indistinguishable from that of love. The consciousness of advancing years and that of a fortune which bars the triumph of public honour alike find their consolation in this affection. A period of absence (xxvi.-xxxii.) follows, in which the thought of friendship comes to remedy the daily labour of travel and the sorrows of a life that is “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and filled with melancholy broodings over the past. Then (xxxiii.-xlii.) comes an estrangement. The friend has committed a sensual fault, which is at the same time a sin against friendship. He has been wooed by a woman loved by the poet, who deeply resents the treachery, but in the end forgives it, and bids the friend take all his loves, since all are included in the love that has been freely given him. It is difficult to escape the suggestion that this episode of the conflict between love and friendship is the same as that which inspired some of the “dark woman” sonnets. Another journey (xliii.-lii.) is again filled with thoughts of the friend, and its record is followed by a group of sonnets (liii.-lv.) in which the friend’s beauty and the immortality which this will find in the poet’s verse are especially dwelt upon. Once more there is a parting (lvi.-lxi.) and the poet waits as patiently as may be his friend’s return to him. Again (lxii.-lxv.) he looks to his verse to give the friend immortality. He is tired of the world, but his friend redeems it (lxvi.-lxviii.) . Then rumours of some scandal against his friend (lxix.-lxx.) reach him, and he falls (lxxi.-lxxiv.) into gloomy thoughts of coming death. The friend, however, is still (lxxv.-lxxvii.) his argument; and he is perturbed (lxxviii-lxxxvi.) by the appearance of a rival poet, who claims to be taught by spirits to write “above a mortal pitch,” and with “the proud full sail of his great verse” has already won the countenance of Shakespeare’s patron. There is another estrangement (lxxxvii.-xc.), and the poet, already crossed with the spite of fortune, is ready not only to acquiesce in the loss of friendship, but to find the fault in himself. The friend returns to him, but the relation is still clouded by doubts of his fidelity (xci.-xciii.) and by public rumours of his wantonness (xciv.-xcvi.). For a third time the poet is absent (xcvii.-xcix.) in summer and spring. Then comes an apparent interval, after which a love already three years old is renewed (c.-civ.), with even richer praises (cv.-cviii.). It is now the poet’s turn to offer apologies (cix.-cxii.) for offences against friendship and for some brand upon his name apparently due to the conditions of his profession. He is again absent (cxiii.) and again renews his protestations of the imperishability of love (cxiv.-cxvi.) and of his own unworthiness (cxvii.-cxxi.), for which his only excuse is in the fact that the friend was once unkind. If the friend has suffered as Shakespeare suffered, he has “passed a hell of time.” The series closes with a group (cxxii.-cxxv.) in which love is pitted against time; and an envoi, not in sonnet form, warns the “lovely boy” that in the end nature must render up her treasure.
Such an analysis can give no adequate idea of the qualities
in these sonnets, whereby the appeal of universal poetry is built
up on a basis of intimate self-revelation. The human document
is so legible, and at the same time so incomplete, that it is easy
to understand the strenuous efforts which have been made to
throw further light upon it by tracing the identities of those
other personalities, the man and the woman, through his relations
to whom the poet was brought to so fiery an ordeal of soul, and
even to the borders of self-abasement. It must be added that
the search has, as a rule, been conducted with more ingenuity
than judgment. It has generally started from the terms of a
somewhat mysterious dedication prefixed by the publisher
Thomas Thorpe to the volume of 1609. This runs as follows: —
“To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W. H. all
happinesse and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet
wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth T. T.”
“Mr W. H.” The natural interpretation of this is that the inspirer or “begetter” of the sonnets bore the initials W. H.; and contemporary history has accordingly been ransacked to find a W. H. whose age and circumstances might conceivably fit the conditions of the problem which the sonnets present. It is perhaps a want of historical perspective which has led to the centring of controversy around two names belonging to the highest ranks of the Elizabethan nobility, those of Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. There is some evidence to connect Shakespeare with both of these. To Southampton he dedicated Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, and the story that he received a gift of no less than £1000 from the earl is recorded by Rowe. His acquaintance with Pembroke can only be inferred from the statement of Heminge and Condell in their preface to the First Folio of the plays, that Pembroke and his brother Montgomery had “prosequuted both them and their Authour living, with so much favour.” The personal beauty of the rival claimants and of their mothers, their amours and the attempts of their families to persuade them to marry, their relations to poets and actors, and all other points in their biographies which do or do not fit in with the indications of the sonnets, have been canvassed with great spirit and some erudition, but with no very conclusive result. It is in Pembroke’s favour that his initials were in fact W. H., whereas Southampton’s can only be turned into W. H. by a process of metathesis; and his champions have certainly been more successful than Southampton’s in producing a dark woman, a certain Mary Fitton, who was a mistress of Pembroke’s, and was in consequence dismissed in disgrace from her post of maid of honour to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the balance of evidence is in favour of her having been blonde, and not “black.” Moreover, a careful investigation of the sonnets, as regards their style and their relation to the plays, renders it almost impossible on chronological grounds that Pembroke can have been their subject. He was born on the 9th of April 1580, and was therefore much younger than Southampton, who was born on the 6th of October 1573. The earliest sonnets postulate a marriageable youth, certainly not younger than eighteen, an age which Southampton reached in the autumn of 1591 and Pembroke in the spring of 1598. The writing of the sonnets may have extended over several years, but it is impossible to doubt that as a whole it is to the years 1593–1598 rather than to the years 1598–1603 that they belong. There is not, indeed, much external evidence available. Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia of 1598 mentions Shakespeare’s “sugred sonnets among his private friends,” but this allusion might come as well at the beginning as at the end of the series; and the fact that two, not of the latest, sonnets are in The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599 is equally inconclusive.
The only reference to an external event in the sonnets themselves, which might at first sight seem useful, is in the following lines (cvii.): —
“The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.”
This has been variously interpreted as referring to the death of Elizabeth and accession of James in 1603, to the relief caused by the death of Philip II. of Spain in 1598, and to the illness of Elizabeth and threatened Spanish invasion in 1596. Obviously the “mortal moon” is Elizabeth, but although “eclipse” may well mean “death,” it is not quite so clear that “endure an eclipse” can mean “die.”
Nor do the allusions to the rival poet help much. “The proud full sail of his great verse” would fit, on critical grounds, with Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman, and possibly Peele, Daniel or Drayton; and the “affable familiar ghost,” from whom the rival is said to obtain assistance by night, might conceivably be an echo of a passage in one of Chapman’s dedications. Daniel inscribed a poem to Southampton in 1603, but with this exception none of the poets named are known to have written either for Southampton or for Pembroke, or for any other W. H. or H. W., during any year which can possibly be covered by the sonnets. Two very minor poets, Barnabe Barnes and Gervase Markham, addressed sonnets to Southampton in 1593 and 1595 respectively, and Thomas Nash composed improper verses for his delectation.
But even if external guidance fails, the internal evidence for 1593–1598 as approximately the sonnet period in Shakespeare’s life is very strong indeed. It has been worked out in detail by two German scholars, Hermann Isaac (now Conrad) in the Shakespeare-Jahrbuch for 1884, and Gregor Sarrazin in William Shakespeares Lehrjahre (1897) and Aus Shakespeares Meisterwerkstatt (1906). Isaac’s work, in particular, has hardly received enough attention even from recent English scholars, probably because he makes the mistakes of taking the sonnets in Bodenstedt’s order instead of Shakespeare’s, and of beginning his whole chronology several years too early in order to gratify a fantastic identification of W. H. with the earl of Essex. This, however, does not affect the main force of an argument by which the affinities of the great bulk of the sonnets are shown, on the ground of stylistic similarities, parallelisms of expression, and parallelisms of theme, to be far more close with the poems and with the range of plays from Love’s Labour’s Lost to Henry IV. than with any earlier or later section of Shakespeare’s work. This dating has the further advantage of putting Shakespeare’s sonnets in the full tide of Elizabethan sonnet-production, which began with the publication of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in 1591 and Daniel’s Delia and Constable’s Diana in 1592, rather than during years for which this particular kind of poetry had already ceased to be modish. It is to the three volumes named that the influence upon Shakespeare of his predecessors can most clearly be traced; while he seems in his turn to have served as a model for Drayton, whose sonnets to Idea were published in a series of volumes in 1594, 1599, 1602, 1605 and 1619. It does not of course follow that because the sonnets belong to 1593–1598 W. H. is to be identified with Southampton. On general grounds he is likely, even if above Shakespeare’s own rank, to have been somewhat nearer that rank than a great earl, some young gentleman, for example, of such a family as the Sidneys, or as the Walsinghams of Chislehurst.
It is possible that there is an allusion to Shakespeare’s romance in a poem called “Willobie his Avisa,” published in 1594 as from the pen of one Henry Willoughby, apparently of West Knoyle in Wiltshire. In this Willoughby is introduced as taking counsel when in love with “his familiar friend W. S. who not long before had tryed the curtesy of the like passion, and was now newly recovered of the like infection.” But there is nothing outside the poem to connect Shakespeare with a family of Willoughbys or with the neighbourhood of West Knoyle. Various other identifications of W. H. have been suggested, which rarely rest upon anything except a similarity of initials. There is little plausibility in a theory broached by Mr Sidney Lee, that W. H. was not the friend of the sonnets at all, but a certain William Hall, who was himself a printer, and might, it is conjectured, have obtained the “copy” of the sonnets for Thorpe. It is, of course, just possible that the “begetter” of the title-page might mean, not the “inspirer,” but the “procurer for the press” of the sonnets ; but the interpretation is shipwrecked on the obvious identity of the person to whom Thorpe “wishes” eternity with the person to whom the poet “promised” that eternity. The external history of the Sonnets must still be regarded as an unsolved problem; the most that can be said is that their subject may just possibly be Southampton, and cannot possibly be Pembroke.
In order to obtain a glimmering of the man that was Shakespeare, it is necessary to consult all the records and to read the evidence of his life-work in the plays, alike in the light of the simple facts of his external career and in The man and the artist. that of the sudden vision of his passionate and dissatisfied soul preserved in the sonnets. By exclusive attention to any one of these sources of information it is easy to build up a consistent and wholly false conception of a Shakespeare; of a Shakespeare struggling between his senses and his conscience in the artistic Bohemianism of the London taverns; of a sleek, bourgeois Shakespeare to whom his art was no more than a ready way to a position of respected and influential competence in his native town; of a great objective artist whose personal life was passed in detached contemplation of the puppets of his imagination. Any one of these pictures has the advantage of being more vivid, and the disadvantage of being less real, than the somewhat elusive and enigmatic Shakespeare who glances at us for a perplexing moment, now behind this, now behind that, of his diverse masks. It is necessary also to lay aside Shakespeareolatry, the spirit that could wish with Hallam that Shakespeare had never written the Sonnets, or can refuse to accept Titus Andronicus on the ground that “the play declares as plainly as play can speak, ’I am not Shakespeare’s; my repulsive subject, my blood and horrors, are not, and never were his.’” The literary historian has no greater enemy than the sentimentalist. In Shakespeare we have to do with one who is neither beyond criticism as a man nor impeccable as an artist. He was for all time, no doubt; but also very much of an age, the age of the later Renaissance, with its instinct for impetuous life, and its vigorous rather than discriminating appetite for literature. When Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare lacked “art,” and when Milton wrote of his “native wood-notes wild,” they judged truly. The Shakespearian drama is magnificent and incoherent; it belongs to the adolescence of literature, to a period before the instrument had been sharpened and polished, and made unerring in its touch upon the sources of laughter and of tears. Obviously nobody has such power over our laughter and our tears as Shakespeare. But it is the power of temperament rather than of art; or rather it is the power of a capricious and unsystematic artist, with a perfect dramatic instinct for the exposition of the ideas, the characters, the situations, which for the moment command his interest, and a perfect disregard for the laws of dramatic psychology which require the patient pruning and subordination of all material that does not make for the main exposition. This want of finish, this imperfect fusing of the literary ore, is essentially characteristic of the Renaissance, as compared with ages in which the creative impulse is weaker and leaves room for a finer concentration of the means upon the end. There is nearly always unity of purpose in a Shakespearian play, but it often requires an intellectual effort to grasp it and does not result in a unity of effect. The issues are obscured by a careless generosity which would extend to art the boundless freedom of life itself. Hence the intrusive and jarring elements which stand in such curious incongruity with the utmost reaches of which the dramatic spirit is capable; the conventional and melodramatic endings, the inconsistencies of action and even of character, the emotional confusions of tragicomedy, the complications of plot and subplot, the marring of the give-and-take of dialogue by superfluities of description and of argument, the jest and bombast lightly thrown in to suit the taste of the groundlings, all the flecks that to an instructed modern criticism are only too apparent upon the Shakespearian sun. It perhaps follows from this that the most fruitful way of approaching Shakespeare is by an analysis of his work rather as a process than as a completed whole. His outstanding positive quality is a vast comprehensiveness, a capacity for growth and assimilation, which leaves no aspect of life unexplored, and allows of no finality in the nature of his judgments upon life. It is the real and sufficient explanation and justification of the pains taken to determine the chronological order of his plays, that the secret of his genius lies in its power of development and that only by the study of its development can he be known. He was nearly thirty when, so far as we can tell, his career as a dramatist began; and already there lay behind him those six or seven unaccounted-for years since his marriage, passed no one knows where, and filled no one knows with what experience, but assuredly in that strenuous Elizabethan life with some experience kindling to his intellect and formative of his character. To the woodcraft and the familiarity with country sights and sounds which he brought with him from Stratford, and which mingle so oddly in his plays with a purely imaginary and euphuistic natural history, and to the book-learning of a provincial grammar-school boy, and perhaps, if Aubrey is right, also of a provincial schoolmaster, he had somehow added, as he continued to add throughout his life, that curious store of acquaintance with the details of the most diverse occupations which has so often perplexed and so often misled his commentators. It was the same faculty of acquisition that gave him his enormous vocabulary, so far exceeding in range and variety that of any other English writer.
His first group of plays is largely made up of adaptations and revisions of existing work, or at the best of essays in the conventions of stage-writing which had already achieved popularity. In the Yorkist trilogy he takes up the burden of the chronicle play, in The Comedy of Errors that of the classical school drama and of the page-humour of Lyly, in Titus Andronicus that of the crude revenge tragedy of Kyd, and in Richard III. that of the Nemesis motive and the exaltation of the Machiavellian superman which properly belong to Marlowe. But in Richard III. be begins to come to his own with the subtle study of the actor’s temperament which betrays the working of a profound interest in the technique of his chosen profession. The style of the earliest plays is essentially rhetorical; the blank verse is stiff and little varied in rhythm; and the periods are built up of parallel and antithetic sentences, and punctuated with devices of iterations, plays upon words, and other methods of securing emphasis, that derive from the bad tradition of a popular stage, upon which the players are bound to rant and force the note in order to hold the attention of a dull-witted audience. During the plague-vacations of 1592 to 1594, Shakespeare tried his hand at the ornate descriptive poetry of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece; and the influence of this exercise, and possibly also of Italian travel, is apparent in the next group of plays, with their lyric notes, their tendency to warm southern colouring, their wealth of decorative imagery, and their elaborate and not rarely frigid conceits. Rhymed couplets make their appearance, side by side with blank verse, as a medium of dramatic dialogue. It is a period of experiment, in farce with The Taming of the Shrew, in satirical comedy with Love’s Labour’s Lost, in lyrical comedy with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in lyrical tragedy with Romeo and Juliet, in lyrical history with Richard II., and finally in romantic tragicomedy with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and with the masterpiece of this singular genre, The Merchant of Venice. It is also the period of the sonnets, which have their echoes both in the phrasing and in the themes of the plays; in the black-browed Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in the issue between friendship and love which is variously set in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and in The Merchant of Venice. But in the latter play the sentiment is already one of retrospection; the tempest of spirit has given way to the tender melancholy of renunciation. The sonnets seem to bear witness, not only to the personal upheaval of passion, but also to some despondency at the spite of fate and the disgrace of the actor’s calling. This mood too may have cleared away in the sunshine of growing popularity, of financial success, and of the possibly long-delayed return to Stratford. Certainly the series of plays written next after the travels of 1597 are light-hearted plays, less occupied with profound or vexatious searchings of spirit than with the delightful externalities of things. The histories from King John to Henry V. form a continuous study of the conditions of kingship, carrying on the political speculations begun in Richard II. and culminating in the brilliant picture of triumphant efficiency, the Henry of Agincourt. Meanwhile Shakespeare develops the astonishing faculty of humorous delineation of which he had given foretastes in Jack Cade, in Bottom the weaver, and in Juliet’s nurse; sets the creation of Falstaff in front of his vivid pictures of contemporary England; and passes through the half-comedy, half melodrama, of Much Ado About Nothing to the joyous farce of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and to his two perfectly sunny comedies the sylvan comedy of As You Like It and the urban comedy of Twelfth Night.
Then there comes a change of mood, already heralded by Julius Caesar, which stands beside Henry V. as a reminder that efficiency has its seamy as well as its brilliant side. The tragedy of political idealism in Brutus is followed by the tragedy of intellectual idealism in Hamlet; and this in its turn by the three bitter and cynical pseudo-comedies, All’s Well That Ends Well, in which the creator of Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola drags the honour of womanhood in the dust — Troilus and Cressida, in which the ideals of heroism and of romance are confounded in the portraits of a wanton and a poltroon — and Measure for Measure, in which the searchlight of irony is thrown upon the paths of Providence itself. Upon the causes of this new perturbation in the soul of Shakespeare it is perhaps idle to speculate. The evidence of his profound disillusion and discouragement of spirit is plain enough; and for some years the tide of his pessimistic thought advances, swelling through the pathetic tragedy of Othello to the cosmic tragedies of Macbeth and King Lear, with their Titan-like indictments not of man alone, but of the heavens by whom man was made. Meanwhile Shakespeare’s style undergoes changes no less notable than those of his subject matter. The ease and lucidity characteristic of the histories and comedies of his middle period give way to a more troubled beauty, and the phrasing and rhythm often tend to become elliptic and obscure, as if the thoughts were hurrying faster than speech can give them utterance. The period closes with Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, in which the ideals of the love of woman and the honour of man are once more stripped bare to display the skeletons of lust and egoism, and in the latter of which signs of exhaustion are already perceptible; and with Timon of Athens, in which the dramatist whips himself to an almost incoherent expression of a general loathing and detestation of humanity. Then the stretched cord suddenly snaps. Timon is apparently unfinished, and the next play, Pericles, is in an entirely different vein, and is apparently finished but not begun. At this point only in the whole course of Shakespeare’s development there is a complete breach of continuity. One can only conjecture the occurrence of some spiritual crisis, an illness perhaps, or some process akin to what in the language of religion is called conversion, which left him a new man, with the fever of pessimism behind him, and at peace once more with Heaven and the world.
The final group of plays, the Shakespearian part of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, all belong to the class of what may be called idyllic romances. They are happy dreams, in which all troubles and sorrows are ultimately resolved into fortunate endings, and which stand therefore as so many symbols of an optimistic faith in the beneficent dispositions of an ordering Providence. In harmony with this change of temper the style has likewise undergone another change, and the tense structure and marmoreal phrasing of Antony and Cleopatra have given way to relaxed cadences and easy and unaccentuated rhythms. It is possible that these plays, Shakespeare’s last plays, with the unimportant exceptions of his contributions to Fletcher’s Henry VIII. and The Two Noble Kinsmen, were written in retirement at Stratford. At any rate the call of the country is sounding through them; and it is with no regret that in the last pages of The Tempest the weary magician drowns his book, and buries his staff certain fathoms deep in the earth. (E. K. C.)
- ↑ It is worth noting that Walter Roche, who in 1558 became fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was master of the school in 1570–1572, so that its standard must have been good.
- ↑ Baptista Mantuanus (1448–1516), whose Latin Eclogues were translated by Turberville in 1567.
- ↑ It is most improbable, however, that the apologetic reference in Chettle’s Kind-hart’s Dream (December 1592) refers to Shakespeare.
- ↑ Kempe (speaking to Burbage), “Few of the university pen plays well. They smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer (sic) Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down; aye, and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow. He brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit.”
- ↑ “The sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honeytongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred sonnets among his private friends.”