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SHAKSPEARE IN LONDON.
Shakspeare's Arrival in London about the Year 1586, when twenty-two Years of Age-Leaves his Family at Stratford, visiting them occasionally-His Introduction to the Stage-His Merits as
No era in the annals of Literary History ever perhaps occurred of greater importance, than that which witnessed the entrance of Shakspeare into the metropolis of his native country; a position which will readily be granted, if we consider the total revolution which this event produced in the Literature of the Stage, and the vast influence which, through the medium of the most popular branch of our poetry, it has subsequently exerted on the minds, manners, and taste of our countrymen. Friendless, persecuted, poor, about the early age of twenty-two, was the greatest poet which the world has ever seen, compelled to desert his home, his wife, his children, to seek employment from the hands of strangers. Rich, however, in talent, beyond all the sons of men, blessed with a cheerful disposition, an active mind, and a heart conscious of integrity, soon did the clouds which overspread his youth break away, and unveil a character which has ever since been the delight, the pride, the boast of England.
We have assigned some strong reasons, at the close of the last chapter, for placing the epoch of Shakspeare's arrival in London, about 1586 or 1587; and we shall now bring forward some presumptive proofs that he not only left his wife and family at Stratford on his first visit to the capital, but that his native town continued to be their settled residence during his life.
Mr. Rowe has affirmed upon a tradition which we have no claim to dispute, that he "was obliged to leave his family for some time;" a fact in the highest degree probable from the causes which led to his removal; for it is not to be supposed, situated as he then was, that he would be willing to render his wife and children the companions and partakers of the disasters and disappointments which it was probable he had to encounter. Tradition further says, as preserved in the manuscripts of Aubrey, that "he was wont to go to his native country once a yeare;" and Mr. Oldys, in his collections for a life of our author, repeats this report with an additional circumstance, remarking "if tradition may be trusted, Shakspeare often baited at the Crown Inn or Tavern in Oxford, in his journei's to and from London." It is true that these traditions, if insulated from other circumstances, might merely prove that he visited the place of his birth annually, without necessarily inferring that his family was also resident there; but if we consult the parish-register of Stratford, their testimony will indeed be strong, and powerfully confirm the deduction; for it appears on that record that, merely including his children, there is a succession of baptisms, marriages and deaths in his family at Stratford, from the year 1583 to 1616. This evidence, so satisfactory in itself,
Antony Wood, it appears, was the original author of this anecdote, for he tells us in his Athenæ, that John Davenant, who kept the Crown, was an admirer and lover of plays and play-makers, especially Shakspeare, who frequented his house in his journies between Warwickshire and London.” Ath. Oxon. vol. ii. p. 292.
will be strengthened when we recollect that the poet in his mortgage, dated the 10th of March, 1612-13, is described as William Shakspeare of Stratford-uponAvon, gentleman; and that by his contemporaries he was frequently styled the "Sweet Swan of Avon," designations which, when combined with the testimony already adduced, must be considered as implying the family-residence of the poet.*
It was this concatenation of circumstances which induced Mr. Chalmers, than whom a more indefatigable enquirer with regard to our author has not existed, to conclude that Shakspeare had no "fixed residence in the metropolis," nor "ever considered London as his home;" but had "resolved that his wife and family should remain through life," at Stratford, "though he himself made frequent excursions to London, the scene of his profit, and the theatre of his fame;" adding, in a note, that the evidence from the parish-register of Stratford had compelled even scepticism to admit his position to be very probable.
While discussing this subject in his first Apology, he has introduced a novel and most curious fact, for the purpose of guarding the reader against an apparently opposing, but too hasty inference. "If documents," he observes, "be produced to prove, that one Shakspeare, a player, resided in St. Saviour's parish, Southwark, at the end of the sixteenth, or the beginning of the seventeenth, century, this evidence will not be conclusive proof of the settled residence of Shakspeare: for, it is a fact, as new as it is curious, that his brother Edmond, who was baptized on the 3d of May, 1580, became a player at the Globe; lived in St. Saviour's; and was buried in the church of that parish: the entry in the register being without a blur; 1607 December 31 was buried), Edmond Shakspeare, a player, in the church;' there can be no dispute about the date, or the name, or the profession. It is remarkable, that the parish-clerk, who scarcely ever mentions any other distinction of the deceased, than a man, or a woman, should, by I know not what inspiration, have recorded Edmond Shakspeare, as a player. There were, consequently, two Shakspeares on the stage, during the same period; as there were two Burbages, who were also brothers, and who acted on the same theatre."
Upon the whole, we may with considerable confidence and safety conclude, that the family-residence of Shakspeare was always at Stratford; that he himself originally went alone to London, and that he spent the greater part of every year there alone, annually, however, and probably for some months, returning to the bosom of his family, and that this alternation continued until he finally left the capital.
Having disposed of this question, another, even still more doubtful, immediately follows, with regard to the employment and mode of life which the poet was compelled to adopt on reaching the metropolis. Mr. Rowe, recording the consequences of the prosecution in Warwickshire, observes,-"It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house. He was received into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank."
From this passage we may in the first place infer, that Shakspeare, immediately on his arrival in town, applied to the theatre for support; an expedient to which there is reason to suppose he was induced, by a previous connection or acquaintance with one or more of the performers. It appears, indeed, from the researches of Mr. Malone, that the probability of his being known, even while at Stratford, to Heminge, Burbage, and Thomas Greene, all of them celebrated comedians of their day, is very considerable. "I suspect," remarks this acute commentator, "that both he (namely, John Heminge) and Burbage were Shakspeare's countrymen, and that Heminge was born at Shottery, a village in Warwickshire, at a
* Ben Jonson, in his Poem to the Memory of Shakspeare, calls him "Sweet Swan of Avon :" and Joseph Taylor, who represented the part of Hamlet in 1596, in the dedication which he and his fellow-players wrote for Beaumont and Fletcher's Works, in 1647, speaks of "the flowing compositions of the then expired Sweet Swan of Avon, Shakspeare.
very small distance from Stratford-upon-Avon; where Shakspeare found his wife. I find two families of this name settled in that town early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the daughter of John Heminge of Shottery, was baptized at Stratford-upon-Avon, March 12, 1567. This John might have been the father of the actor, though I have found no entry relative to his baptism: for he was probably born before the year 1558, when the Register commenced. In the vil→ lage of Shottery also lived Richard Hemyng, who had a son christened by the name of John, March 7, 1570. Of the Burbage family the only notice I have found is an entry in the Register of the parish of Stratford, October 12, 1565, on which day Philip Green was married in that town to Ursula Burbage, who might have been sister to James Burbage, the father of the actor, whose marriage I suppose to have taken place about that time. If this conjecture be well founded, our poet, we see, had an easy introduction to the theatre."
The same remark which concludes this paragraph is repeated by the commen→ tator when speaking of Thomas Greene, whom he terms, a celebrated comedian, the townsman of Shakspeare, and perhaps his relation. The celebrity of Greene as an actor is fully ascertained by an address to the reader, prefixed by Thomas Heywood to his edition of John Cook's Greene's "Tu Quoque; or, The City Gallant;""as for Maister Greene," says Heywood, "all that I will speak of him (and that without flattery) is this (if I were worthy to censure), there was not an actor of his nature, in his time, of better ability in performance of what he undertook, more applauded by the audience, of greater grace at the court, or of more general love in the city;" but the townsmanship and affinity rest only on the inference to be drawn from an entry in the parish-register of Stratford, and from some lines quoted by Chetwood from the comedy of the "Two Maids of More→ clack," which represent Greene speaking in the character of a clown, and declaring
"I prattled poesie in my nurse's arms,
And, born, where late our Swan of Avon sung,
As these lines are not, however, in the play from which they are pretended to have been taken; as they appear to be a parody on a passage in Milton's Lycidas, and as Chetwood has been detected in falsifying and forging many of his dates, little credit can be attached to their evidence, and we must solely depend upon the import of the register, which records that "Thomas Greene, alias Shakspere, was buried there, March 6th, 1589." If this Thomas were the father of the actor, and the probability of this being the case cannot be denied, and may even have led to the attempted imposition of Chetwood, the affinity as well as the townsmanship, will be established.
It seems, therefore, neither rash nor inconsequent to believe, in failure of more direct evidence, that the channel through which Shakspeare, immediately on his arrival in town, procured an introduction to the stage, was first opened by his relationship to Greene, who possessing, as we have seen, great merit and influence as an actor, could easily insure him a connection at the theatre, and would naturally recommend him to his countryman Heminge, who was then about thirty years of age, and had already acquired considerable reputation as a performer. ‡
Mr. Rowe's second assertion that he was received into the company, then in being, at first in a very mean rank, has given rise to some reports relative to the nature of his early employment at the theatre, which are equally inconsistent and degrading. It has been related that his first office was that of Call-boy, or at
Ancient British Drama, vol. ii. p. 539.
+ British Theatre, p. 9.
Mr. Chalmers, speaking of Heminges says-" There is reason to believe, that he was, originally, a Warwickshire lad; a shire, which has produced so many players and poets; the Burbages, the Shakspeares, the Greens, and the Harts." Apology, p. 435, 436.
tendant on the prompter, and that his business was to give notice to the performers when their different entries on the stage were required. Another tradition, which places him in a still meaner occupation, is said to have been transmitted through the medium of Sir William Davenant to Mr. Betterton, who commnicated it to Mr. Rowe, and this gentleman to Mr. Pope, by whom, according to Dr. Johnson, it was related in the following terms:
"In the time of Elizabeth, coaches being yet uncommon, and hired coaches not at all in use, those who were too proud, too tender, or too idle to walk, went on horseback to any distant business or diversion. Many came on horseback to the play, and when Shakspeare fled to London from the terror of a criminal prosecution, his first expedient was to wait at the door of the playhouse, and hold the horses of those that had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance. In this office he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will. Shakspeare, and scarcely any other waiter was trusted with a horse while Will. Shakspeare could be had. This was the first dawn of better fortune. Shakspeare, finding more horses put into his hand than he could hold, hired boys to wait under his inspection, who, when Will. Shakspeare was summoned, were immediately to present themselves, I am Shakspeare's boy, Sir. In time, Shakspeare found higher employment: but as long as the practice of riding to the playhouse continued, the waiters that held the horses retained the appellation of Shakspeare's boys."
Of this curious anecdote it should not be forgotten, that it made its first appearance in Cibber's Lives of the Poets ;* and that if it were known to Mr. Rowe, it is evident he thought it so little entitled to credit that he chose not to risk its insertion in his life of the poet. In short, if we reflect for a moment that Shakspeare, though he fled from Stratford to avoid the severity of a prosecution, could not be destitute either of money or friends, as the necessity for that flight was occasioned by an imprudent ebullition of wit, and not by any serious delinquency; that the father of his wife was a yeoman both of respectability and property; that his own parent, though impoverished, was still in business; and that he had, in all likelihood, a ready admission to the stage through the influence of persons of leading weight in its concerns; we cannot, without doing the utmost violence to probability, conceive that, under these circumstances, and in the twenty-third year of his age, he would submit to the degrading employment of either a horse-holder at the door of a theatre, or of a call-boy within its walls.
Setting aside, therefore, these idle tales, we may reasonably conclude that by the phrase "a very mean rank," Mr. Rowe meant to imply, that his first engagement as an actor was in the performance of characters of the lowest class. That his fellow-comedians were ushered into the dramatic world in a similar way, and rose to higher occupancy by gradation, the history of the stage will sufficiently prove: Richard Burbage, for instance, who began his career nearly at the same time with our author, and who subsequently became the greatest tragedian of his age, had, in the year 1589, appeared in no character more important than that of a Messenger. If this were the case with a performer of such acknowledged merit, we may readily acquiesce in the supposition that the parts first given to Shakspeare were equally as insignificant; and as readily allow that an actor thus circumstanced might very properly be said to have been admitted into the company at first in a very mean rank.
As Shakspeare's immediate employment, therefore, on his arrival in town, appears to have been that of an actor, it cannot be deemed irrelevant if we should here enquire into his merits and success in this department.
Two traditions, of a contradictory complexion, have reached us relative to Shakspeare's powers as an actor; one on the authority of Mr. Aubrey, and the other on that of Mr. Rowe. In the manuscript papers of the first of these gentlemen, we are told that our author, "being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act
* Lives of the Poets, vol. i. p. 130.
exceedingly well;" but, in the life of the poet by the second, it is added, after mentioning his admission to the theatre in an inferior rank, that "his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in those times, amongst those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts he used to play; and though I have enquired, I could never meet with any further account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet." Of descriptions thus opposed, a preference only can be given as founded on other evidence; and it happens that subsequent enquiry has enabled us to consider Mr. Aubrey's account as approximating nearest to the truth.
Contemporary authority, it is evident, would decide the question, and happily the researches of Mr. Malone have furnished us with a testimony of this kind. In the year 1592, Henry Chettle, a dramatic writer, published a posthumous work of Robert Greene's, under the title of "Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance," in which the author speaks harshly of Marlowe, and still more so of Shakspeare, who was then rising into fame. Both these poets were justly offended, and Chettle, who was of course implicated in their displeasure, printed, in the December of the same year, a pamphlet, entitled “Kind Harts Dreame," to which is prefixed an address to the Gentlemen Readers," apologizing, in the following terms, for the offence which he had given :
"About three months since died M. Robert Greene, leaving many papers in sundry booksellers' hands, among others his "Groatsworth of Wit," in which a letter written to divers playmakers is offensively by one or two of them taken; and because on the dead they cannot be reavenged, they wilfully forge in their conceites a living author: and after tossing it to and fro, no remedy but it must light on me. How I have, all the time of my conversing in printing, hindered the bitter inveighing against schollers, it hath been very well known; and how in that I dealt, I can sufficiently prove. With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them (Marlowe') I care not if I never be. The other (Shakspeare'), whom at that time I did not so much spare, as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the hate of living writers, and might have used my own discretion, (especially in such a case, the author being dead), that I did not, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault; because myselfe have seene his demeanour no less civil than he EXCELLENT IN THE QUALITIE HE Profesess. Besides divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honestie, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art. For the first, whose learning I reverence, and at the perusing of Greene's book, strooke out what then in conscience I thought he in some displeasure writ; or had it been true, yet to publish it was intollerable; him I would wish to use me no worse than I deserve."
This curious passage clearly evinces that our author was deemed excellent as an actor (for the phrase "the qualitie he professes" peculiarly denoted at that time the profession of a player), in the year 1592, only five or six years, at most, after he had entered on the stage; and consequently that the information which Aubrey had received was correct, while that obtained by Rowe must be considered as unfounded.
So well instructed, indeed, was Shakspeare in the duties and qualities of an actor, that it appears from Downes's book, entitled "Roscius Anglicanus," that he undertook to teach and perfect John Lowin in the character of King Henry the Eighth, and Joseph Taylor in that of Hamlet.
Of his competency for this task, several parts of his dramatic works might be brought forward as sufficient proof. Independent of his celebrated instructions to the player in Hamlet, which would alone ascertain his intimate knowledge of the histrionic art, his conception of the powers necessary to form the accomplished tragedian, may be drawn from part of a dialogue which occurs between Richard the Third and Buckingham :
"Glo. Come, cousin, can'st thou quake and change thy colour? Murther thy breath in middle of a word?