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is scarcely less prosaic that the same wondrous man, about the period when he wrote Macbeth, had an action for debt in the Bailiff's Court at Stratford, to recover thirtyfive shillings and tenpence for corn by him sold and delivered.
Familiar, then, with theatrical exhibitions, such as they were, from his earliest youth, and with a genius so essentially dramatic that all other writers that the world has seen have never approached him in his power of going out of himself, it is inconsistent with probability that he should not have attempted some dramatic composition at an early age. The theory that he was first employed in repairing the plays of others we hold to be altogether untenable ; supported only by a very narrow view of the great essentials to a dramatic work, and by verbal criticism, which, when carefully examined, utterly fails even in its own petty assumptions, There can be no doubt that the three Parts of “Henry VI.” belong to the early stage. We believe them to be wholly and absolutely the early work of Shakspere. But we do not necessarily hold that they were his earliest work ; for the proof is so absolute of the continual improvements and elaborations which he made in his best productions, that it would be difficult to say that some of the plays which have the most finished air, but of which there were no early editions, may not be founded upon very youthful compositions. Others may have wholly perished ; thrown aside after a season ; never printed ; and neglected by their author, to whom new inventions would be easier than remodellings of pieces probably composed upon a false theory of art. For it is too much to imagine that his first productions would be wholly untainted by the taste of the period. Some might have been weak delineations of life and character, overloaded with mythological conceits and pastoral affectations, like the plays of Lyly, which were the Court fashion before 1590. Others might have been prompted by the false ambition to produce effect, which is the characteristic of Locrine, and partially so of Titus Andronicus. But of one thing we may be sure—that there would be no want of power even in his first productions ; that real poetry would have gushed out of the bombast, and true wit sparkled amidst the conceits. His first plays would, we think, fall in with the prevailing desire of the people to learn the history of their country through the stage. If so, they would certainly not exhibit the feebleness of some of those performances which were popular about the period of which we are now speaking, and which continued to be popular even after he had most successfully undertaken
"To raise our ancient sovereigns from their hearse." The door of the theatre was not a difficult one for him to enter. It is a singular fact, that several of the most eminent actors of this very period are held to have been his immediate neighbours. The petition to the Privy Council, which has proved that Shakspere was a sharer in the Blackfriars playhouse in 1589, contains the names of sixteen shareholders, he being the twelfth on the list. The head of the Company was James Burbage ; the second, Richard Burbage his son. Malone suspected that both John Heminge, one of the editors of Shakspere's Collected Works, and Richard Burbage, “were Shakspere's countrymen, and that Heminge was born at Shottery." His conjecture with regard to Heminge was founded upon entries in the baptismal register of Stratford, which show that there was a John Heminge at Shottery in 1567, and a Richard Heminge in 1570. Mr. Collier has shewn that a John Burbadge was bailiff of Stratford in 1555 ; and that many of the same name were residents in Warwickshire. But Mr. Hunter believes that Richard Burbage was a native of London. A letter addressed by Lord Southampton to Lord Ellesmere in 1608, introducing Burbage and Shakspere to ask protection of that nobleman, then Lord Chancellor, against some threatened molestation from the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, says, “they are both of one county, and indeed almost of one town." This would be decisive, had some doubts not been thrown upon the authenticity of this document. We do not therefore rely upon the assumption that William Shakspere and Richard Burbage were originally neighbours. But from the visits of the Queen's players to Stratford, Shakspere might have made friends with Burbage and Heminge, and have seen that the profession of an actor, however disgraced by some men of vicious manners, performing in the inn-yards and smaller theatres of London, numbered amongst its members men of correct lives and honourable character. Even the enemy of plays and players, Stephen Gosson, had been compelled to acknowledge this : “ It is well known that some of them are sober, discreet, properly learned, honest householders, and citizens well thought on among their neighbours at home."* It was a lucrative profession, too; especially to those who had the honour of being the Queen's Servants. Their theatre was frequented by persons of rank and fortune ; the prices of admission were high ; they were called upon not unfrequently to present their performances before the Queen herself, and their reward was a royal one. The object thus offered to the ambition of a young man, conscious of his own powers, would be glittering enough to induce him, not very unwillingly, to quit the tranquil security of his native home. But we inverse the usual belief in this matter. We think that Shakspere became an actor because he was a dramatic writer, and not a dramatic writer because he was an actor. He very quickly made his way to wealth and reputation, not so much by a handsome person and pleasing manners, as by that genius which left all other competitors far behind him in the race of dramatic composition ; and by that prudence which taught him to combine the exercise of his extraordinary powers with a constant reference to the course of life he had chosen, not lowering his art for the advancement of his fortune, but achieving his fortune in showing what mighty things might be accomplished by his art.
There is a subject, however, which we are now called upon to examine, which may have had a material influence upon the determination of Shakspere to throw himself upon the wide and perilous sea of London dramatic society. We have uniformly contended against the assertion that the poverty of John Shakspere prevented him giving his son a grammar-school education. We believe that all the supposed evidences of that poverty, at the period of Shakspere's boyhood, are extremely vague and contradictory.t But, on the other hand, it appears to us more than probable that after William Shakspere had the expenses of a family to meet, there were changes, and very natural ones, in the worldly position of his father, and consequently of his own, which might have rendered it necessary that the son should abandon the tranquil course of a rural life which he probably contemplated when he married, and make a strenuous and a noble exertion for independence, in a career which his peculiar genius opened to him. We will first state the facts which appear to bear upon the supposed difficulties of John Shakspere, about the period when William may be held to have joined Burbage's company in London-facts which are far from indicating any thing like ruin, but which exhibit some involvements and uneasiness.
In 1578 John Shakspere mortgaged his property of Asbies, acquired by marriage. Four years before this he purchased two freehold houses in Stratford, which he always retained. In 1578, therefore, he wanted capital. In 1579 he sold an interest in some property at Snitterfield. But then, in 1580, he tendered the mortgage money to the mortgagee of the Asbies' estate, which was illegally refused, on the pretence that other money was owing. A Chancery suit was the consequence, which was undetermined in 1597. In an action for debt in the bailiff's court in 1586, the return of the serjeants-at-mace upon a warrant of distress against John Shak* "School of Abuse," 1579.
† See Book 11., Chap. I.
spere is, that he had nothing to distrain upon. It is held, therefore, that all the household gear was then gone. Is it not more credible that the family lived elsewhere ? Mr. Hunter has discovered that a John Shakspere lived at Clifford, a pretty village near Stratford, in 1579, he being described in a will of 1583 as indebted to the estate of John Ashwell, of Stratford. His removal from Stratford borough as a resident, is corroborated by the fact that he was irregular in his attendance at the halls of the corporation, after 1578; and was finally, in 1586, removed from the body, for that he “ doth not come to the halls when they be warned.” And yet, as there were fines for non-attendance, as pointed out by Mr. Halliwell, there is some proof that he clung to the civic honours, even at a personal cost; though, from some cause, and that probably non-residence, he did not perform the civic duties. Lastly, he is returned in 1592, with other persons, as not attending church, and this remark is appended to a list of pine persons, in which is the name of “ Mr. John Shackespere," —" It is said that these last nine come not to church for fear of process for debt." If he had been residing in the borough it would have been quite unnecessary to execute the process in the sacred precincts ;-he evidently lived and was occupied out of the borough. It is tolerably clear that the traffic of Henley Street, whether of wool, or skins, or carcases, was at an end. John Shakspere, the yeoman, was farming ; and, like many other agriculturists, in all districts, and all times, was a sufferer from causes over which he had no control. There were peculiar circumstances at that period which, temporarily, would have materially affected his property.
In 1580 John Shakspere tendered the mortgage-money for his wife's inheritance at Asbies. The property was rising in value ;-the mortgagee would not give it up. He had taken possession, and had leased it, as we learn from the Chancery proceedings. He alleges, in 1597, that John Shakspere wanted to obtain possession, because the lease was expiring," whereby a greater value is to be yearly raised.” Other property was sold to obtain the means of making this tender. John Shakspere would probably have occupied his estate of Asbies, could he have obtained possession. But he was unlawfully kept out ; and he became a tenant of some other land, in addition to what he held of his own. There was, at this particular period, a remarkable pressure upon proprietors and tenants who did not watchfully mark the effects of an increased abundance of money-a prodigious rise in the value of all commodities, through the greater supply of the precious metals. In "A Briefe Conceipte touching the Commonweale," already quoted,* there is, in the dialogue between the landowner, the husbandman, the merchant, the manufacturer, and the doctor of divinity, a complaint on the part of the landowner, which appears to offer a parallel case to that of John Shakspere :-“ All of my sort~ I mean all gentlemen -have great cause to complain, now that the prices of things are so risen of all hands, that you may better live after your degree than we ; for you may and do raise the price of your wares as the prices of victuals and other necessaries do rise, and so cannot we so much ; for though it be true, that of such lands as come to hands either by purchase or by determination and ending of such terms of years that I or my ancestors had granted them in time past, I do receive a better fine than of old was used, or enhance the rent thereof, being forced thereto for the charge of my household, that is so encreased over that it was ; yet in all my lifetime I look not that the third part of my land shall come to my disposition, that I may enhance the rent of the same, but it shall be in men's holding either by leases or by copy granted before my time, and still continuing, and yet like to continue in the same state for tho most part during my life, and percase my sons. * * * * * * We are forced therefore to minish the third part of our household, or to raise the
* Page 12.
third part of our revenues, and for that we cannot so do of our own lands that is already in the hands of other men, many of us are enforced to keep pieces of our own lands when they fall in our own possession, or to purchase some farm of other men's lands, and to store it with sheep or some other cattle, to help make up the decay of our revenues, and to maintain our old estate withal, and yet all is little enough."
In such a transition state, we may readily imagine John Shakspere to have been a sufferer. But his struggle was a short one. He may have owed debts he was unable to pay, and have gone through some seasons of difficulty, deriving small rents from his own lands, " in the hands of other men,” and enforced to hold “some farm of other men's lands” at an advanced rent. Yet this is not ruin and degradation, He maintained his social position; and it is pleasant to imagine that his illustrious son devoted some portion of the first rewards of his labour to make the condition of his father easier in that time of general uneasiness and difficulty. In ten years prosperity brightened the homes of that family. The poet bought the best house in Stratford ; the yeoman applied to the College of Arms for bearings that would exhibit his gentle lineage, and asserted that he was a man of landed substance, sufficient to uphold the pretension. But in the period of rapid changes in the value of property,--a transition which, from the time of Latimer, was producing the most
severely upon many, although it was affording the sure means of national progress,
-it is more than probable that Shakspere's father gradually found himself in straitened circumstances. This change in his condition might have directed his son to a new course of life which might be entered upon without any large pecuniary means, and which offered to his ambition a fair field for the exercise of his peculiar genius. There was probably a combination of necessity and of choice which gave us “Hamlet” and “Lear.” If William Shakspere had remained at Stratford he would have been a poet—a greater, perhaps, than the author of "The Faery Queen ;” but that species of literature which it was for him to build up, almost out of chaos, and to carry onward to a perfection beyond the excellence of any other age, might have been for him" an unweeded garden.”
NOTE. Mr. Halliwell, in the Preface to his “ Life," has done me the favour to call public attention to my ignorance of " Palæography," in reference to my publication of some documents on which the preceding statements are founded. He says, “ Mr. Knight is, I believe, the only one of late years who has referred to the originals, (“records of Stratford-on-Avon,") but the very slight notice he has taken of them, and the portentous mistakes he has committed in cases where printed copies were not to be found, would appear to show that they were unintelligible to that writer.” In one other passage Mr. Halliwell has conferred on me the greater favour of pointing out the number of “the portentous mistakes” in two documents out of the four which I gave from reference “to the originals.” As to the others he is silent. He says, as to these two documents, “Malone makes thirty-one errors, and Mr. Knight, who professes in this instance to see the value of accuracy in such matters, and to correct his predecessors, falls into twenty-six." I acknowledge my own errors, with deep humility; and I owe the public a duty to show what these twenty-six “ portentous mistakes" are, and how they ought to be corrected from Mr. Halliwell's transcripts, founded upon his knowledge of “palæography,” which he describes as “a science essentially necessary in the investigation of contracted records of the sixteenth century, especially of those written in Latin." But Mr. Halliwell is too indulgent to me. I have exceeded the number of Malone's errors by two. Of course I assume that in reading these mouldy and blurred records Mr. Halliwell is infallible in the matters of ys and it. In his case no one can believe in the possibility of a doubt.
“At his word
Is A deposed, and B with pomp restor’d."
MR. KNIGHT'S MR. HALLIWELL'S
18. appear . appeare
19. ibm. :
20. a. . . anno
domine 5. is . .
22. &c. . . reginæ nostræ, &c.
23. is . . ys
24. ordeined . ordened
25. towards towardes
26. releif . relief 10. burgess. burgese
27. saving . savinge 11. such suche
28. omitted. Mr. 12. paye pay
29. omitted . Mr. 13. ivd. jijd.
30. Plimley. Plumley 14. Plymley. Plumley
31. pay . . paye 15. omitted , Aldermen
32. burgesses burgeses 16. sum. . Summa
33. weekely, weekeley 17. inhabitants inhabitantes I think it my further duty to make a clean breast," as my fellow-criminals say, and acknowledge my faults in the other Latin document I examined. I have omitted in my copy of a Writ the words " eundem" and "prædicti,"—recondite words, which to have passed over was not only a crime but a fault--a critical sin and a “portentous mistake"-an ignorance of the science of “ Palæography,” which, to use the words of one who knew all sciences, " wholly disqualifies for the office of critic." One has come to enlighten the world, who, by the light of “science," does know that ibm. means ibidem, and dnæ, dominæ. I am grateful.