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