Shakespeare      Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works
- The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets
- The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots
- Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works - Site Map - More ...
 [Shakespeare Quotes]     
 Home > Life of Shakespeare >

Prev | Next | Contents


Shakespeare's life seems to fall sharply into two halves. Till he met Mistress Fitton, about 1597, he must have been happy and well content, I think, in spite of his deep underlying melancholy. According to my reckoning he had been in London about ten years, and no man has ever done so much in the time and been so successful even as the world counts success. He had not only written the early poems and the early plays, but in the last three or four years half-a-dozen masterpieces: "A Midsummer's Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet," "Richard II.," "King John," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Two Parts of Henry IV." At thirty-three he was already the greatest poet and dramatist of whom Time holds any record.

Southampton's bounty had given him ease, and allowed him to discharge his father's debts, and place his dearly loved mother in a position of comfort in the best house in Stratford.

He had troops of friends, we may be sure, for there was no gentler, gayer, kindlier creature in all London, and he set store by friendship. Ten years before he had neither money, place, nor position; now he had all these, and was known even at Court. The Queen had been kind to him. He ended the epilogue to the "Second Part of Henry IV.," which he had just finished, by kneeling "to pray for the Queen." Essex or Southampton had no doubt brought his work to Elizabeth's notice: she had approved his "Falstaff" and encouraged him to continue. Of all his successes, this royal recognition was surely the one which pleased him most. He was at the topmost height of happy hours when he met the woman who was to change the world for him.

In the lives of great men the typical tragedies are likely to repeat themselves. Socrates was condemned to drain many a poisoned cup before he was given the bowl of hemlock: Shakespeare had come to grief with many women before he fell with Mary Fitton. It was his ungovernable sensuality which drove him in youth to his untimely and unhappy marriage; it was his ungovernable sensuality, too, which in his maturity led him to worship Mary Fitton, and threw him into those twelve years of bondage to earthy, coarse service which he regretted so bitterly when the passion-fever had burned itself out.

One can easily guess how he came to know the self-willed and wild-living maid-of-honour. Like many of the courtiers, Mistress Fitton affected the society of the players. Kemp, the clown of his company, knew her, and dedicated a book to her rather familiarly. I have always thought that Shakespeare resented Kemp's intimacy with Mistress Fitton, for when Hamlet advises the players to prevent the clown from gagging, he adds, with a snarl of personal spite:

"a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

Mary Fitton's position, her proud, dark beauty, her daring of speech and deed took Shakespeare by storm. She was his complement in every failing; her strength matched his weakness; her resolution his hesitation, her boldness his timidity; besides, she was of rank and place, and out of pure snobbery he felt himself her inferior. He forgot that humble worship was not the way to win a high-spirited girl. He loved her so abjectly that he lost her; and it was undoubtedly his overpowering sensuality and snobbishness which brought him to his knees, and his love to ruin. He could not even keep her after winning her; desire blinded him. He would not see that Mary Fitton was not a wanton through mere lust. As soon as her fancy was touched she gave herself; but she was true to the new lover for the time. We know that she bore a son to Pembroke and two illegitimate daughters to Sir Richard Leveson. Her slips with these men wounded Shakespeare's vanity, and he persisted in underrating her. Let us probe to the root of the secret sore. Here is a page of "Troilus and Cressida," a page from that terrible fourth scene of the fourth act, when Troilus, having to part from Cressida, warns her against the Greeks and their proficience in the arts of love:

"<i>Troilus</i>. I cannot sing
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games; fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and pregnant:
But I can tell thee in each grace of these

There lurks a still and dumb-discoursive devil That tempts most cunningly: but be not tempted.

<i>Cressida.</i> Do you think I will?

<i>Troilus. No: but something may be done that we will not.</i>"

The first lines show that poor Shakespeare often felt out of it at Court. The suggestion, I have put in italics, is unspeakable. Shakespeare made use of every sensual bait in hope of winning his love, liming himself and not the woman. His vanity was so inordinate that instead of saying to himself, "it's natural that a high-born girl of nineteen should prefer a great lord of her own age to a poor poet of thirty-four": he strives to persuade himself and us that Mary Fitton was won away from him by "subtle games," and in his rage of wounded vanity he wrote that tremendous libel on her, which he put in the mouth of Ulysses:

  "Fie, fie upon her!

There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip, Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out At every joint and motive of her body. O, these encounterers, so glib of tongue, That give accosting welcome ere it comes, And wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts To every ticklish reader! set them down For sluttish spoils of opportunity And daughters of the game."

His tortured sensuality caricatures her: that "ticklish reader" reveals him. Mary Fitton was finer than his portraits; we want her soul, and do not get it even in Cleopatra. It was the consciousness of his own age and physical inferiority that drove him to jealous denigration of his mistress.

Mary Fitton did not beguile Shakespeare to "the very heart of loss," as he cried; but to the innermost shrine of the temple of Fame. It was his absolute abandonment to passion which made Shakespeare the supreme poet. If it had not been for his excessive sensuality, and his mad passion for his "gipsy," we should never have had from him "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Othello," "Antony and Cleopatra," or "Lear." He would still have been a poet and a dramatic writer of the first rank; but he would not have stood alone above all others: he would not have been Shakespeare.

His passion for Mary Fitton lasted some twelve years. Again and again he lived golden hours with her like those Cleopatra boasted of and regretted. Life is wasted quickly in such orgasms of passion; lust whipped to madness by jealousy. Mary Fitton was the only woman Shakespeare ever loved, or at least, the only woman he loved with such intensity as to influence his art. She was Rosaline, Cressid, Cleopatra, and the "dark lady" of the sonnets. All his other women are parts of her or reflections of her, as all his heroes are sides of Hamlet, or reflections of him. Portia is the first full-length sketch of Mary Fitton, taken at a distance: Beatrice and Rosalind are mere reflections of her high spirits, her aristocratic pride and charm: her strength and resolution are incarnate in Lady Macbeth. Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, are but abstract longings for purity and constancy called into life by his mistress's faithlessness and passion.

Shakespeare admired Mary Fitton as intensely as he desired her, yet he could not be faithful to her for the dozen years his passion lasted. Love and her soft hours drew him irresistibly again and again: he was the ready spoil of opportunity. Here is one instance: it was his custom, Aubrey tells us, to visit Stratford every year, probably every summer: on his way he was accustomed to put up at an inn in Oxford, kept by John D'Avenant. Mrs. D'Avenant, we are told, was "a very beautiful woman, and of a very good witt and of conversation extremely agreeable." No doubt Shakespeare made up to her from the first. Her second son, William, who afterwards became the celebrated playwright, was born in March, 1605, and according to a tradition long current in Oxford, Shakespeare was his father. In later life Sir William D'Avenant himself was "contented enough to be thought his (Shakespeare's) son." There is every reason to accept the story as it has been handed down. Shakespeare, as Troilus, brags of his constancy; talks of himself as "plain and true"; but it was all boasting: from eighteen to forty-five he was as inconstant as the wind, and gave himself to all the "subtle games" of love with absolute abandonment, till his health broke under the strain.

In several of the Sonnets, notably in 36 and 37, Shakespeare tells us that he was "poor and despised ... made lame by fortune's dearest spite." He will not even have his friend's name coupled with his for fear lest his "bewailed guilt" should do him shame:

"Let me confess that we two must be twain, Although our undivided loves are one: So shall those blots that do with me remain Without thy help, by me be borne alone...."

Spalding and other critics believe that this "guilt" of Shakespeare refers to his profession as an actor, but that stain should not have prevented Lord Herbert from honouring him with "public kindness." It is clear, I think, from the words themselves, that the guilt refers to the fact that both Herbert and he were in love with the same woman. Jonson, as we have seen, had poked fun at their connection, and this is how Shakespeare tries to take the sting out of the sneer.

Shakespeare had many of the weaknesses of the neurotic and artistic temperament, but he had assuredly the noblest virtues of it: he was true to his friends, and more than generous to their merits.

If his ethical conscience was faulty, his aesthetical conscience was of the very highest. Whenever we find him in close relations with his contemporaries we are struck with his kindness and high impartial intelligence. Were they his rivals, he found the perfect word for their merits and shortcomings. How can one better praise Chapman than by talking of

"The proud full sail of his great verse"?

How can one touch his defect more lightly than by hinting that his learning needed feathers to lift it from the ground? And if Shakespeare was fair even to his rivals, his friends could always reckon on his goodwill and his unwearied service. All his fine qualities came out when as an elder he met churlish Ben Jonson. Jonson did not influence him as much as Marlowe had influenced him; but these were the two greatest of living men with whom he was brought into close contact, and his relations with Jonson show him as in a glass. Rowe has a characteristic story which must not be forgotten:

"His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature; Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown, had offered one of his playes to the Players, in order to have it acted; but the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him, with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to encourage him to read through and afterwards to recommend Ben Jonson and his writings to the publick. After this they were professed friends; though I don't know whether the other ever made him an equal return of gentleness and sincerity. Ben was naturally proud and indolent, and in the days of his reputation did so far take upon him the premier in witt that he could not but look with an evil eye upon anyone that seemed to stand in competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some reserve, insinuating his incorrectness, a careless manner of writing and a want of judgment; the praise of seldom altering or blotting out what he writt which was given him by the players over the first publish of his works after his death was what Jonson could not bear...."

The story reads exactly like the story of Goethe and Schiller. It was Schiller who held aloof and was full of fault-finding criticism: it was Goethe who made all the advances and did all the kindnesses. It was Goethe who obtained for Schiller that place as professor of history at Jena which gave Schiller the leisure needed for his dramatic work. It is always the greater who gives and forgives.

I believe, of course, too, in the traditional account of the unforgettable evenings at the Mermaid. "Many were the wit-combats," wrote Fuller of Shakespeare in his "Worthies" (1662), "betwixt him and Ben Jonson, which too I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man of war. Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all sides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention."

It was natural for the onlooker to compare Ben Jonson and his "mountainous belly" to some Spanish galleon, and Shakespeare, with his quicker wit, to the more active English ship. It was Jonson's great size--a quality which has always been too highly esteemed in England--his domineering temper and desperate personal courage that induced the gossip to even him with Shakespeare.

Beaumont described these meetings, too, in his poetical letter to his friend Jonson:

"What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid? Heard words that have been So nimble and so full of subtle flame, As if that every one from whence they came Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest, And had resolved to live a fool the rest Of his dull life."

In one respect at least the two men were antitheses. Jonson was exceedingly combative and quarrelsome, and seems to have taken a chief part in all the bitter disputes of his time between actors and men of letters. He killed one actor in a duel and attacked Marston and Dekker in "The Poetaster"; they replied to him in the "Satiromastix." More than once he criticized Shakespeare's writings; more than once jibed at Shakespeare, unfairly trying to wound him; but Shakespeare would not retort. It is to Jonson's credit that though he found fault with Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Pericles," he yet wrote of him in the "Poetaster" as a peacemaker, and, under the name of Virgil, honoured him as the greatest master of poetry.

Tradition gives us one witty story about the relations between the pair which seems to me extraordinarily characteristic. Shakespeare was godfather to one of Ben's children, and after the christening, being in a deep study, Jonson came to cheer him up, and asked him why he was so melancholy. "No, faith, Ben," says he; "not I, but I have been considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild and I have resolved at last." "I pr'ythee, what?" sayes he. "I'faith, Ben, I'll e'en give him a dozen good Lattin spoons, and thou shalt translate them." Lattin, as everybody knows, was a mixed metal resembling brass: the play upon words and sly fun poked at Jonson's scholarship are in Shakespeare's best manner. The story must be regarded as Shakespeare's answer to Jonson's sneer that he had "little Latine and lesse Greeke."

Through the mist of tradition and more or less uncertain references in his poetry, one sees that he had come, probably through Southampton, to admire Essex, and the fall and execution of Essex had an immense effect upon him. It is certain, I think, that the noble speech on mercy put into Portia's mouth in "The Merchant of Venice," was primarily an appeal to Elizabeth for Essex or for Southampton. It is plainly addressed to the Queen, and not to a Jew pariah:

"... It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this scepter'd sway, It is enthroned in the heart of kings. It is an attribute of God Himself, And earthly power doth then show likest God's, When Mercy seasons Justice."

All this must have seemed the veriest irony when addressed to an outcast Jew. It was clearly intended as an appeal to Elizabeth, and shows how far gentle Shakespeare would venture in defence of a friend. Like a woman, he gained a certain courage through his affections.

I feel convinced that he resented the condemnation of Essex and the imprisonment of Southampton very bitterly, for though he had praised Elizabeth in his salad days again and again, talked about her in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as a "fair vestal throned by the west"; walking in "maiden meditation, fancy-free"; yet, when she died, he could not be induced to write one word about her. His silence was noticed, and Chettle challenged him to write in praise of the dead sovereign, because she had been kind to him; but he would not: he had come to realise the harsh nature of Elizabeth, and he detested her ruthless cruelties. Like a woman, he found it difficult to forgive one who had injured those he loved. Now that I have discussed at some length Shakespeare's character, its powers and its weaknesses, let us for a moment consider his intellect. All sorts and conditions of men talk of it in superlatives; but that does not help us much. It is as easy to sit in Shakespeare's brain and think from there, as it is from Balzac's. If we have read Shakespeare rightly, his intelligence was peculiarly self-centred; he was wise mainly through self-knowledge, and not, as is commonly supposed, through knowledge of others and observation; he was assuredly anything but worldly-wise. Take one little point. In nearly every play he discovers an intense love of music and of flowers; but he never tells you anything about the music he loves, and he only mentions a dozen flowers in all his works. True, he finds exquisite phrases for his favourites; but he only seems to have noticed or known the commonest. His knowledge of birds and beasts is similarly limited. But when Bacon praises flowers he shows at once the naturalist's gift of observation; he mentions hundreds of different kinds, enumerating them month by month; in April alone he names as many as Shakespeare has mentioned in all his writings. He used his eyes to study things outside himself, and memory to recall them; but Shakespeare's eyes were turned inward; he knew little of the world outside himself.

Shakespeare's knowledge of men and women has been overrated. With all his sensuality he only knew one woman, Mary Fitton, though he knew her in every mood, and only one man, himself, profoundly apprehended in every accident and moment of growth.

He could not construct plays or invent stories, though he selected good ones with considerable certainty. He often enriched the characters, seldom or never the incidents; even the characters he creates are usually sides of himself, or humorous masks without a soul. He must have heard of the statesman Burleigh often enough; but nowhere does he portray him; no hint in his works of Drake, or Raleigh, or Elizabeth, or Sidney. He has no care either for novelties; he never mentions forks or even tobacco or potatoes. A student by nature if ever there was one, all intent, as he tells us, on bettering his mind, he passes through Oxford a hundred times and never even mentions the schools: Oxford men had disgusted him with their <i>alma mater</i>.

The utmost reach of this self-student is extraordinary; the main puzzle of life is hidden from us as from him; but his word on it is deeper than any of ours, though we have had three centuries in which to climb above him.

  "Men must abide

Their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all."

And if it be said that the men of the Renaissance occupied themselves more with such questions than we do, and therefore show better in relation to them, let us take another phrase which has always seemed to me of extraordinary insight. Antony has beaten Caesar, and returns to Cleopatra, who greets him with the astounding words:

  "Lord of lords,

O, infinite virtue, com'st thou smiling from The world's great snare uncaught?"

This is all more or less appropriate in the mouth of Cleopatra; but it is to me Shakespeare's own comment on life; he is conscious of his failure; he has said to himself: "if I, Shakespeare, have failed, it is because every one fails; life's handicap searches out every weakness; to go through life as a conqueror would require 'infinite virtue.'" This is perhaps the furthest throw of Shakespeare's thought.

But his worldly wisdom is to seek. After he had been betrayed by Lord Herbert he raves of man's ingratitude, in play after play. Of course men are ungrateful; it is only the rarest and noblest natures who can feel thankful for help without any injury to vanity. The majority of men love their inferiors, those whom they help; to give flatters self-esteem; but they hate their superiors, and lend to the word "patron" an intolerable smirk of condescension. Shakespeare should have understood that at thirty.

When his vanity was injured, his blindness was almost inconceivable. He should have seen Mary Fitton as she was and given us a deathless-true portrait of her; but the noble side of her, the soul-side a lover should have cherished, is not even suggested. He deserved to lose her, seeking only the common, careless of the "silent, silver lights" she could have shown him. He was just as blind with his wife; she had been unwillingly the ladder to his advancement; he should have forgiven her on that ground, if not on a higher.

He was inordinately vain and self-centred. He talked incontinently, as he himself assures us, and as Ben Jonson complains. He was exceedingly quick and witty and impatient. His language shows his speed of thought; again and again the images tumble over each other, and the mere music of his verse is breathlessly rapid, just as the movement of Tennyson's verse is extremely slow.

More than once in his works I have shown how, at the crisis of fate, he jumps to conclusions like a woman. He seems often to have realized the faults of his own haste. His Othello says:

"How poor are they that have not patience."

With this speed of thought and wealth of language and of wit, he naturally loved to show off in conversation; but as he wished to get on and make a figure in the world, he should have talked less and encouraged his patrons to show off. Poor heedless, witty, charming Shakespeare! One threat which he used again and again, discovers all his world-blindness to me. Gravely, in sonnet 140, he warns Mary Fitton that she had better not provoke him or he will write the truth about her--just as if the maid of honour who could bear bastard after bastard, while living at court, cared one straw what poor Shakespeare might say or write or sing of her. And Hamlet runs to the same weapon: he praises the players to Polonius as

"Brief chronicles of the time; after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live."

It is all untrue; actors were then, as now, only mummers without judgement. Shakespeare was thinking of himself, the dramatist-poet, who was indeed a chronicle of the time; but the courtier Lord Polonius would not care a dam for a rhymester's praise or blame. Posthumus, too, will write against the wantons he dislikes. Shakespeare's weapon of offence was his pen; but though he threatened, he seldom used it maliciously; he was indeed a "harmless opposite," too full of the milk of human kindness to do injury to any man. But these instances of misapprehension in the simple things of life, show us that gentle Shakespeare is no trustworthy guide through this rough all-hating world. The time has now come for me to consider how Shakespeare was treated by the men of his own time, and how this treatment affected his character. The commentators, of course, all present him as walking through life as a sort of uncrowned king, fêted and reverenced on all sides during his residence in London, and in the fullness of years and honours retiring to Stratford to live out the remainder of his days in the bosom of his family as "a prosperous country gentleman," to use Dowden's unhappy phrase. As I have already shown, his works give the lie to this flattering fiction, which in all parts is of course absolutely incredible. It is your Tennyson, who is of his time and in perfect sympathy with it; Tennyson, with his May Queens, prig heroes and syrupy creed, who passes through life as a conqueror, and after death is borne in state to rest in the great Abbey.

The Shakespeares, not being of an age, but for all time, have another guess sort of reception. From the moment young Will came to London, he was treated as an upstart, without gentle birth or college training: to Greene he was "Maister of Artes in Neither University." He won through, and did his work; but he never could take root in life; his children perished out of the land. He was in high company on sufferance. On the stage he met the highest, Essex, Pembroke, Southampton, on terms of equality; but at court he stood among the menials and was despitefully treated. Let no one misunderstand me: I should delight in painting the other picture if there were any truth in it: I should have joyed in showing how the English aristocracy for this once threw off their senseless pride and hailed the greatest of men at least as an equal. Frederic the Great would have done this, for he put Voltaire at his own table, and told his astonished chamberlains that "privileged spirits rank with sovereigns." Such wisdom was altogether above the English aristocracy of that or any time. Yet they might have risen above the common in this one instance. For Shakespeare had not only supreme genius to commend him, but all the graces of manner, all the sweetness of disposition, all the exquisite courtesies of speech that go to ensure social success. His imperial intelligence, however, was too heavy a handicap. Men resent superiority at all times, and there is nothing your aristocrat so much dislikes as intellectual superiority, and especially intellect that is not hall-marked and accredited: the Southamptons and the Pembrokes must have found Shakespeare's insight and impartiality intolerable. It was Ben Jonson whom Pembroke made Poet Laureate; it was Chapman the learned, and not Shakespeare, who was regarded with reverence. How could these gentlemen appreciate Shakespeare when it was his "Venus and Adonis" and his "Lucrece" that they chiefly admired. "Venus and Adonis" went through seven editions in Shakespeare's lifetime, while "Othello" was not thought worthy of type till the author had been dead six years.

But badly as the aristocrats treated Shakespeare they yet treated him better than any other class. The shopkeepers in England are infinitely further removed from art or poetry than the nobles; now as in the time of Elizabeth they care infinitely more for beef and beer and broadcloth than for any spiritual enjoyment; while the masses of the people prefer a dog-fight to any masterpiece in art or letters.

Some will say that Shakespeare was perhaps condemned for dissolute living, and did not come to honour because of his shortcomings in character. Such a judgement misapprehends life altogether. Had Shakespeare's character been as high as his intellect he would not have been left contemptuously on one side; he would have been hated and persecuted, pilloried or thrown into prison as Bunyan was. It was his dissolute life that commended him to the liking of the loose-living Pembroke and Essex. Pembroke, we know from Clarendon, was "immoderately given to women." Four maids of honour, we learn, were <i>enceintes</i> to Essex at the same time. Shakespeare was hardly as dissolute as his noble patrons. The truth was they could not understand his genius; they had no measure wherewith to measure it, for no one can see above his own head; and so they treated him with much the same condescending familiarity that nobles nowadays show to a tenor or a ballet dancer. In March, 1604, after he had written "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," Shakespeare and some other actors walked from the Tower of London to Westminster in the procession which accompanied King James on his formal entry into London. Each of the actors received four and a half yards of scarlet cloth to wear as a cloak on the occasion. The scarlet cloak to Shakespeare must have been a sort of Nessus' shirt, or crown of thorns--the livery of derision.

Shakespeare, who measured both enemies and friends fairly, measured himself fairly, too. He usually praises his impersonations: Hamlet is "a noble heart," Brutus "the noblest Roman of them all"; and speaking directly he said of himself in a sonnet:

"I am that I am, and they that level At my abuses reckon up their own;
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel."

He knew his own greatness, none better, and as soon as he reached middle age and began to take stock of himself, he must have felt bitterly that he, the best mind in the world, had not brought it far in the ordinary estimation of men. No wonder he showed passionate sympathy with all those who had failed in life; he could identify himself with Brutus and Antony, and not with the Caesars.

Shakespeare's view of England and of Englishmen was naturally affected by their treatment of him. He is continually spoken of as patriotic, and it is true that he started in youth with an almost lyrical love of country. His words in "Richard II." are often quoted; but they were written before he had any experience or knowledge of men.

"<i>Gaunt</i>. This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat, defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

The apologists who rejoice in his patriotism never realize that Shakespeare did not hold the same opinions throughout his life; as he grew and developed, his opinions developed with him. In "The Merchant of Venice" we find that he has already come to saner vision; when Portia and Nerissa talk of the English suitor, Portia says:

"You know I say nothing to him; for he understands not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian; and you will come into the court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the Englishman. He is a proper man's picture; but, alas, who can converse with a dumb show? How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behaviour everywhere."

What super-excellent criticism it all is; true, now as then, "a proper man's picture but ... a dumb show." It proves conclusively that Shakespeare was able to see around and over the young English noble of his day. From this time on I find no praise of England or of Englishmen in any of his works, except "Henry V.," which was manifestly written to catch applause on account of its jingoism. In his maturity Shakespeare saw his countrymen as they were, and mentioned them chiefly to blame their love of drinking. Imogen says:

"Hath Britain all the sun that shines? Day, night, Are they not but in Britain?..........................prithee, think There's livers out of Britain."

Whoever reads "Coriolanus" carefully will see how Shakespeare loathed the common Englishman; there can be no doubt at all that he incorporated his dislike of him once for all in Caliban. The qualities he lends Caliban are all characteristic. Whoever will give him drink is to Caliban a god. The brutish creature would violate and degrade art without a scruple, and the soul of him is given in the phrase that if he got the chance he would people the world with Calibans. Sometimes one thinks that if Shakespeare were living to-day he would be inclined to say that his prediction had come true.

One could have guessed without proof that in the course of his life Shakespeare, like Goethe, would rise above that parochial vanity which is so much belauded as patriotism. He was in love with the ideal and would not confine it to any country.

There is little to tell of his life after he met Mary Fitton, or rather the history of his life afterwards is the history of his passion and jealousy and madness as he himself has told it in the great tragedies. He appears to have grown fat and scant of breath when he was about thirty-six or seven. In 1608 his mother died, and "Coriolanus" was written as a sort of monument to the memory of "the noblest mother in the world." His intimacy with Mary Fitton lasted, I feel sure, up to his breakdown in 1608 or thereabouts, and was probably the chief cause of his infirmity and untimely death.

It only remains for me now to say a word or two about the end of his life. Rowe says that "the latter part of his life was spent as all men of good sense will that theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasion, and, in that, to his wish, and is said to have spent some years before his death at his native Stratford." Rowe, too, tells us that it is a story "well remembered in that country, that he had a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury; it happened that in a pleasant conversation amongst their common friends Mr. Combe told Shakespeare, in a laughing manner, that he fancied he intended to write his epitaph, if he happened to outlive him; and since he did not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desired it might be done immediately; upon which Shakespeare gave him these four verses:

"Ten in the Hundred lies here ingrav'd 'Tis a Hundred to Ten his soul is not sav'd: If any Man ask, 'Who lies in this tomb,' Oh! ho! quoth the Devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe."

But the sharpness of the Satyr is said to have stung the man so severely that he never forgave him."

I have given all this because I want the reader to have the sources before him, and because the contempt of tradesman-gain and usury, even at the very end, is so characteristic.

It appears, too, from the Stratford records, and is therefore certain, that as early as the year 1614 a preacher was entertained at New Place--"Item, one quart of sack, and one quart of claret wine, given to a preacher at the New Place, twenty pence." The Reverend John Ward, who was vicar of Stratford, in a manuscript memorandum book written in the year 1664, asserts that "Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Johnson had a merie meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a feavour there contracted."

Shakespeare, as we have seen from "The Tempest," retired to Stratford--"where every third thought shall be my grave"--in broken health and in a mood of despairing penitence. I do not suppose the mood lasted long; but the ill-health and persistent weakness explain to me as nothing else could his retirement to Stratford. It is incredible to me that Shakespeare should leave London at forty-seven or forty-eight years of age, in good health, and retire to Stratford to live as a "prosperous country gentleman"! What had Stratford to offer Shakespeare--village Stratford with a midden in the chief street and the charms of the village usurer's companionship tempered by the ministrations of a wandering tub-thumper?

There is abundant evidence, even in "The Winter's Tale" and "Cymbeline," to prove that the storm which wrecked Shakespeare's life had not blown itself out even when these last works were written in 1611-12; the jealousy of Leontes is as wild and sensual as the jealousy of Othello; the attitude of Posthumus towards women as bitter as anything to be found in "Troilus and Cressida":

  "Could I find out

The woman's part in me! For there's no motion That tends to vice in man but I affirm It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it, The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers; Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain, Nice longing, slanders, mutability, All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows, Why, hers, in part or all, but rather all; For even to vice
They are not constant, but are changing still One vice, but of a minute old, for one Not half so old as that."

The truth is, that the passions of lust and jealousy and rage had at length worn out Shakespeare's strength, and after trying in vain to win to serenity in "The Tempest," he crept home to Stratford to die.

In his native air, I imagine, his health gradually improved; but he was never strong enough to venture back to residence in London. He probably returned once or twice for a short visit, and during his absence his pious daughter, Mrs. Hall, entertained the wandering preacher in New Place.

As Shakespeare grew stronger he no doubt talked with Combe, the usurer, for want of any one better.

It is probable, too, that on one of his visits to London he took up Fletcher's "Henry VIII." and wrote in some scenes for him and touched up others, or Fletcher may have visited him in Stratford and there have begged his help.

His youngest daughter, Judith, was married early in 1616; it seems probable to me that this was the occasion of the visit of Jonson and Drayton to Stratford. No doubt Shakespeare was delighted to meet them, talked as few men ever talked before or since, and probably drank too much with those "poor unhappy brains for drinking" which his Cassius deplored. Thus fanned, the weak flame of his life wasted quickly and guttered out. It is all comprehensible enough, and more than likely, that the greatest man in the world, after the boredom of solitary years spent in Stratford, died through a merry meeting with his friends; in his joy and excitement he drank a glass or so of wine, which brought on a fever. It is all true, true to character, and pitiful beyond words.

Shakespeare to me is the perfect type of the artist, and the artist is gradually coming to his proper place in the world's esteem. In the introduction to one of his "Lives," Plutarch apologizes for writing about a painter, a mere artist, instead of about some statesman or general, who would be a worthy object of ambition for a well-born youth. But since Plutarch's time our view of the relative merits of men has changed and developed: to-day we put the artist higher even than the saint. Indeed, it seems to us that the hero or statesman, or saint, only ranks in proportion to the artist-faculty he may possess. The winning of a battle is not enough to engage all our admiration; it must be won by an artist. In every department of life this faculty is beginning to be appreciated as the finest possession of humanity, and Shakespeare was an almost perfect example of the self-conscious artist.

People talk as if his masterpieces were produced at haphazard or by unconscious fruition; but masterpieces are not brought forth in this happy-go-lucky fashion. They are of the sort that only come to flower with perfect tendance. Even if we did not know that Shakespeare corrected his finest verses again and again with critical care, we should have to assume it. But we know that he spared no pains to better his finer inspirations, and he has told us in a sonnet how anxiously he thought about his art and the art of his rivals:

"Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope With what I most enjoy contented least."

He has all the qualities and all the shortcomings of the reflective, humane, sensuous artist temperament, intensified by the fact that he had not had the advantage of a middle-class training.

In a dozen ways our Puritan discipline and the rubs and buffets one gets in this work-a-day world where money is more highly esteemed than birth or sainthood or genius, have brought us beyond Shakespeare in knowledge of men and things. The courage of the Puritan, his self-denial and self-control, have taught us invaluable lessons; Puritanism tempered character as steel is tempered with fire and ice, and the necessity of getting one's bread not as a parasite, but as a fighter, has had just as important results on character. Shakespeare is no longer an ideal to us; no single man can now fill our mental horizon; we can see around and above the greatest of the past: the overman of to-day is only on the next round of the ladder, and our children will smile at the fatuity of his conceit.

But if we can no longer worship Shakespeare, it is impossible not to honour him, impossible not to love him. All men--Spenser as well as Jonson--found him gentle and witty, gay and generous. He was always willing to touch up this man's play or write in an act for that one. He never said a bitter or cruel word about any man. Compare him with Dante or even with Goethe, and you shall find him vastly superior to either of them in loving kindness. He was more contemptuously treated in life than even Dante, and yet he never fell away to bitterness as Dante did: he complained, it is true; but he never allowed his fairness to be warped; he was of the noblest intellectual temper.

It is impossible not to honour him, for the truth is he had more virtue in him than any other son of man. "By their fruits ye shall know them." He produced more masterpieces than any other writer, and the finest sayings in the world's literature are his. Think of it: Goethe was perfectly equipped; he had a magnificent mind and body and temperament: he was born in the better middle classes; he was well off; splendidly handsome; thoroughly educated; his genius was recognized on all hands when he was in his teens; and it was developed by travel and princely patronage. Yet what did Goethe do in proof of his advantages? "Faust" is the only play he ever wrote that can rank at all with a dozen of Shakespeare's. Poor Shakespeare brought it further in the sixteenth century than even Goethe at full strain could bring it in the nineteenth. I find Shakespeare of surpassing virtue. Cervantes ranks with the greatest because he created Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; but Hamlet and Falstaff are more significant figures, and take Hamlet and Falstaff away from Shakespeare's achievement, and more is left than any other poet ever produced.

Harvest after harvest Shakespeare brought forth of astounding quality. Yet he was never strong, and he died at fifty-two, and the last six years of his life were wasted with weakness and ill-health. No braver spirit has ever lived. After "Hamlet" and "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Lear" and "Timon" he broke down: yet as soon as he struggled back to sanity, he came to the collar again and dug "The Winter's Tale" out of himself, and "Cymbeline," and seeing they were not his best, took breath, and brought forth "The Tempest"--another masterpiece, though written with a heart of lead and with the death-sweat dank on his forehead. Think of it; the noblest autumn fruit ever produced; all kindly-sweet and warm, bathed so to speak in love's golden sunshine; his last word to men:

"The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance...."

And then the master of many styles, including the simple, wins to a childlike simplicity, and touches the source of tears:

"We are such stuff as dreams are made of, And our little life is rounded with a sleep."

True, Shakespeare was not the kind of man Englishmen are accustomed to admire. By a curious irony of fate Jesus was sent to the Jews, the most unworldly soul to the most material of peoples, and Shakespeare to Englishmen, the most gentle sensuous charmer to a masculine, rude race. It may be well for us to learn what infinite virtue lay in that frail, sensual singer.

This dumb struggling world, all in travail between Thought and Being, longs above everything to realize itself and become articulate, and never has it found such width of understanding, such melody of speech, as in this Shakespeare. "I have often said, and will often repeat," writes Goethe, "that the final cause and consummation of all natural and human activity is dramatic poetry." Englishmen do not appear yet to understand what arrogance and what profound wisdom there is in this saying; but in a dull, half-conscious way they are beginning dimly to realize that the biggest thing they have done in the world yet is to produce Shakespeare. When I think of his paltry education, his limiting circumstances, the scanty appreciation of his contemporaries, his indifferent health, and recall his stupendous achievement, I am fain to apply to him, as most appropriate, the words he gave to his <i>alter ego</i>, Antony, Antony who, like himself, was world-worn and passion-weary:

"A rarer spirit never Did steer humanity; but you, gods, will give us Some faults to make us men."

Prev | Next | Contents

     Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works - The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets - The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots - Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works
- Study Guide - About Us - Privacy Policy - Site Map - More ...

Buy Books at and Save!