Billeder på siden

seems to have been a shifty, unscrupulous man,“ without the faintest desire to use honest means in procuring a livelihood," always anxious to get his purse filled, and caring little or nothing by what means he did so. His best work is “The Arraignment of Paris,” full of sprightly wit. He died about 1592.

Passing over the other dramatists who flourished about the time when Shakespeare came to London, we come to Shakespeare himself, the greatest writer the world has ever seen, or is ever likely to see. Of his personal history we know little compared to what we should like to know; yet the laborious accumulation of small facts, and the patient sisting of the traditions regarding him, have furnished us with information sufficient to enable us to judge with some degree of accuracy. We know, or at least we have some degree of certainty, that his youth was wild and passionate; that his marriage was not a very happy one; that when the ferments of youth had subsided he became prudent and industrious; that his manners were amiable and his conversational powers great; that he was rather looked down upon by college-bred contemporaries as having “small Latin and less Greek;” that he frequently felt bitterly the hardships and indignities of an actor's career; that he shared to the full the ordinary English dislike of being cheated of anything which was his due; that he was careless of literary fame; that his chief ambition, like Sir Walter Scott's, was to be the founder of a family; that he spent the closing years of his life in happiness and prosperity; and that before his death he had come to be generally recognised as the greatest living writer. We know, too, from his portraits, that he was an eminently handsome man, with a sweet serene face, full of intellect, yet also full of gentleness and kindliness. The bare facts of his life, when disinterred from the mounds of conjecture and disputation in which successive commentators have buried them, are soon told.

William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, was a prosperous burgess there, carrying on business as a glover, and engaged also, it would seem, in corn-dealing or farming. His

Shakespeare's Youth.


mother, Mary Arden, whom his father had married in 1557, was the daughter of a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood, at whose death she became heiress to a small farm called Ashbies. William, the third child and eldest son of his parents, was, in all probability, educated at the Free Grammar School of Stratford, where he acquired the “small Latin and less Greek” Ben Jonson speaks about, and where doubtless he was a prominent figure in all schoolboy sports and amusements. At the earliest date at which Shakespeare could have entered the school-his seventh year—his father had attained the summit of municipal ambition by being appointed chief alderman. For some six or seven years after this John Shakespeare continued prosperous, but about 1577 his fortunes began to decline. In that year half his borough taxes were remitted; in 1578 his wife's property of Ashbies was mortgaged; in 1579 he was returned as a defaulter for not paying a certain tax. Bad luck steadily pursued him for many years ; in 1592 he was set down in a list of those who did not come to church through fear of “process for debt.” Owing to his father's pecuniary difficulties Shakespeare was, it is likely, withdrawn from school about his fourteenth year. What occupation he engaged in after he left school affords matter for boundless conjecture, as nothing certain is known about it. One tradition says that he became a schoolmaster; another that he was bound apprentice to a butcher; another that he entered a lawyer's office. The last hypothesis was strongly advocated by Lord Campbell, with whom Mr. Furnivall agrees. “That he was so at one time of his life," writes Mr. Furnivall, “I, as a lawyer, have no doubt. Of the details of no profession does he show such an intimate acquaintance as he does of law. The other books in imitation of Lord Campbell's prove it to any one who knows enough law to be able to judge. They are just jokes; and Shakespeare's knowledge of insanity was not got in a doctor's shop, though his law was (I believe) in a lawyer's office.” But, as has often been said, the difficulties in which his father was involved must have early given Shakespeare an unfortunate experience of legal documents, and a

clever boy under such circumstances would not be long in picking up and knowing the meaning of many terms of the law.

In 1582 occurred a very important event in Shakespeare's lise—his marriage. His marriage bond to Anne Hathaway, daughter of a yeoman who lived near Stratford, is dated November 28, 1582, and their first child, Susanna, was born on May 26 of the following year-significant facts. Anne was eight years older than her husband, and their union does not seem to have been so happy as to afford any contradiction to the popular opinion that it is a foolish thing for a youth to marry a woman much older than himself. The facts of Shakespeare's life, and incidental allusions scattered through his works, alike go far to prove that his married life was not one of unbroken sunshine. It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare was not thinking of his own experience when he put in the mouth of the Duke in “Twelfth Night” the words,

Let still the woman take
An elder than herself; so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart.
For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,

Than women's are." About 1586 Shakespeare left his wife and family, increased by the birth of twins in 1585, and went up to London to seek his fortune. The immediate cause of his leaving Strat. ford is thus related by his first biographer, Rowe "He had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and, amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely, and in order to avenge the illusage, he made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and family in

The Elizabethan Stage.

77 Warwickshire for some time and shelter himself in London.” In this tradition there is very likely a basis of truth, though the details are not to be depended on. It is supposed that Shakespeare went up to London with a company of players. From his sixth year he had been familiar enough with the represen. tation of plays, for the Queen's company, Lord Leicester's company, Lord Worcester's company, and others, had performed at Stratford. Whether he took to the stage because he had a strong natural bent to it, or because it afforded him the readiest means for earning a livelihood, it is impossible to say.

A London theatre was then a very different place from what it is now. Modern theatrical managers would save thousands of pounds if audiences were content to put up with as meagre scenery and as uncomfortable accommodation as satisfied the Londoners who listened to Shakespeare's plays or saw the great dramatist act. The first theatre in London was not erected till 1576. Until that time actors had been content to give their performances in inn-yards or any other suitable place that offered. After 1576 other theatres sprung up, but they were all very comfortless edifices, judged according to modern ideas. The following description of an Elizabethan theatre and its surroundings gives a sufficiently accurate notion of how plays were represented in the golden age of the English drama :“The building itself was a large circular edifice of wood, on the top of which a flag was hung out during the time of performance. The pit or yard was open to the sky (excepting in the private and winter theatres, which were enclosed), but galleries, with boxes beneath them, ran round the building, and these with the stage were roofed in. The wits, critics, and gallants were allowed to sit or recline at length on the rushes with which the stage was strewed, while their pages nanded them pipes and tobacco; and the audience generally, as in the tavern-theatres and singing saloons of our own day, enhanced the enjoyment of the intellectual pleasures of dramatic representation by the physical solaces of smoking, drinking ale, and eating nuts and apples. The performances commenced at three o'clock in the afternoon. Movable scenery

was unknown till after the Restoration, when it was introduced by Sir William Davenant, but curtains called traverses were drawn across when required, and the stage was hung with coarse tapestry. To point out the place or scene in which the events of the play were supposed to take place, a board, painted or written in large letters, was hung prominently forward; and a few chairs and tables, a couch, a rude imitation of a tomb, an altar, a tree, or a tower, constituted the theatrical properties.' A sort of balcony at the back of the stage served to represent a raised terrace or the platform of a castle, on which, in particular scenes, the characters in the play might be understood to be walking. Much, therefore, had necessarily to be left to the imagination of the spectators; but there can be no doubt, as Mr. Collier remarks, that to this very poverty of stage appliances we are indebted for many noble passages in the works of our earlier dramatists, who found themselves called on to supply, by glowing and graphic description, what in aftertimes was more commonly left to the touch of the scene-painter. In the department, however, of stage costume, the managers of the theatres in the time of Elizabeth displayed great magnificence and expended large sums. The actor who spoke the prologue, entering after the third sounding of the trumpet, usually wore a cloak of black velvet, and we hear of twenty pounds, an immense sum in those days, being occasionally given for a splendid mantle. When tragedies were performed, the stage was sometimes hung with black and covered with matting. Music, singing, and dancing relieved the pauses between the acts; the clown was allowed great latitude in the way of extemporary buffoonery to amuse the groundlings,' as the audience in the pit was termed; and at the close of the piece he delivered a rhyming rhapsody, called a jig, composed with reference to the popular topics of the day, in which he accompanied himself with the pipe and tabor, and which he occasionally varied by a dance."

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

1 Actresses also appeared first on the stage after the Restoration. In the early days of the drama female parts were acted by young lads. In Charles I.'s time, women occasionally acted; but the practice was not at all com. mon till the Restoration.


« ForrigeFortsæt »