Chapter XLVI: Shakespeare--The Man
WHEN Shakespeare first went to London he had a hard life. He found no better work to do than that of holding horses outside the theater doors. In those days the plays took place in the afternoon, and as many of the fine folk who came to watch them rode on horseback, some one was needed to look after the horses until the play was over. But poor though this work was, Shakespeare seems to have done it well, and he became such a favorite that he had several boys under him who were long known as "Shakespeare's boys." Their master, however, soon left work outside the theater for work inside. And now began the busiest years of his life, for he both acted and wrote. At first it may be he only altered and improved the plays of others. But soon he began to write plays that were all his own. Yet Shakespeare, like Chaucer, never invented any of his own stories. There is only one play of his, called Love's Labor's Lost, the story of which is not to be found in some earlier book. That, too, may have been founded on another story which is now lost.
When you come to know Shakespeare's plays well you will find it very interesting to follow his stories to their sources. That of King Lear, which is one of Shakespeare's great romantic historical plays, is, for instance, to be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth, in Wace's Brut, and in Layamon's Brut. But it was from none of these that Shakespeare took the story, but from the chronicle of a man named Holinshed who lived and wrote in the time of Queen Elizabeth, he in his turn having taken it from some one of the earlier sources.
For, after all, in spite of the thousands of books that have been written since the world began, there are only a certain number of stories which great writers have told again and again in varying ways. One instance of this we saw when in the beginning of this book we followed the story of Arthur.
But although Shakespeare borrowed his plots from others, when he had borrowed them he made them all his own. He made his people so vivid and so true that he makes us forget that they are not real people. We can hardly realize that they never lived, that they never walked and talked, and cried and laughed, loved and hated, in this world just as we do. And this is so because the stage to him is life and life a stage. "All the world's a stage," he says,
"And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances:
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."*
*As You Like It.
And again he tells us:
"Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more."*
It is from Shakespeare's works that we get the clearest picture of Elizabethan times. And yet, although we learn from him so much of what people did in those days, of how they talked and even of how they thought, the chief thing that we feel about Shakespeare's characters is, not that they are Elizabethan, but that they are human, that they are like ourselves, that they think, and say, and do, things which we ourselves might think, and say, and do.
There are many books we read which we think of as very pretty, very quaint, very interesting--but old-fashioned. But Shakespeare can never be old-fashioned, because, although he is the outcome of his own times, and gives us all the flavor of his own times, he gives us much more. He understood human nature, he saw beneath the outward dress, and painted for us real men and women. And although fashion in dress and modes of living may change, human nature does not change. "He was not of an age but for all time," it was said of him about seven years after his death, and now that nearly three hundred years have come and gone we still acknowledge the truth of those words.
Shakespeare's men and women speak and act and feel in the main as we might now. Many of his people we feel are our brothers and sisters. And to this human interest he adds something more, for he leads us too through "unpathed waters" to "the undreamed shores" of fairyland.
Shakespeare's writing time was short. Before he left Stratford he wrote nothing unless it may have been a few scoffing verses against the Justice of the Peace who punished him for poaching. But these, if they were ever written, are lost. In the last few years of his life he wrote little or nothing. Thus the number of his writing years was not more than twenty to twenty-five, but in that time he wrote thirty-seven plays, two long poems, and a hundred and fifty-six sonnets. At one time he must have written two plays every year. And when you come to know these plays well you will wonder at the greatness of the task.
Shakespeare writes his plays sometimes in rime, sometimes in blank verse, sometimes in prose, at times using all these in one play. In this he showed how free he was from rules. For, until he wrote, plays had been written in rime or blank verse only.
For the sake of convenience Shakespeare's plays have been divided into histories, tragedies and comedies. But it is not always easy to draw the line and decide to which class a play belongs. They are like life. Life is not all laughter, nor is it all tears. Neither are Shakespeare's comedies all laughter, and some of his tragedies would seem at times to be too deep for tears, full only of fierce, dark sorrow--and yet there is laughter in them too.
Besides being divided into histories, tragedies and comedies they have been divided in another way, into three periods of time. The first was when Shakespeare was trying his hand, when he was brimming over with the joy of the new full life of London. The second was when some dark sorrow lay over his life, we know not what, when the pain and mystery and the irony of living seems to strike him hard. Then he wrote his great tragedies. The third was when he had gained peace again, when life seemed to flow calmly and smoothly, and this period lasted until the end.
We know very little of Shakespeare's life in London. As an actor he never made a great name, never acted the chief character in a play. But he acted sometimes in his own plays and took the part, we are told, of a ghost in one, and of a servant in another, neither of them great parts. He acted, too, in plays written by other people. But it was as a writer that he made a name, and that so quickly that others grew jealous of him. One called him "an upstart Crow, beautified in our feathers . . . in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country."* But for the most part Shakespeare made friends even of rival authors, and many of them loved him well. He was good-tempered, merry, witty, and kindly, a most lovable man. "He was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and a very ready and pleasant smooth wit,"** said one. "I loved the man and do honor to his memory, on this side of idolatry as much as any. He was indeed honest and of an open and free nature,"*** said another. Others still called him a good fellow, gentle Shakespeare, sweet Master Shakespeare. I should like to think, too, that Spenser called him "our pleasant Willy." But wise folk tell us that these words were not spoken of Shakespeare but of some one else whose name was not William at all.
*Robert Greene, A groatsworth of Wit bought with a million of repentance.
And so although outside his work we get only glimpses of the man, these glimpses taken together with his writings show us Will Shakespeare as a big-hearted man, a man who understood all and forgave all. He understood the little joys and sorrows that make up life. He understood the struggle to be good, and would not scorn people too greatly when they were bad. "Children, we feel sure," says one of the latest writers about him, "did not stop their talk when he came near them, but continued in the happy assurance that it was only Master Shakespeare."* And so if children find his plays hard to read yet a while they may at least learn to know his stories and learn to love his name--it is only Master Shakespeare. But they must remember that learning to know Shakespeare's stories through the words of other people is only half a joy. The full joy of Shakespeare can only come when we are able to read his plays in his very own words. But that will come all the more easily and quickly to us if we first know his stories well.
There are parts in some of Shakespeare's plays that many people find coarse. But Shakespeare is not really coarse. We remember the vision sent to St. Peter which taught him that there was nothing common or unclean. Shakespeare had seen that vision. In life there is nothing common or unclean, if we only look at it in the right way. And Shakespeare speaks of everything that touches life most nearly. He uses words that we do not use now; he speaks of things we do not speak of now; but it was the fashion of his day to be more open and plain spoken than we are. And if we remember that, there is very little in Shakespeare that need hurt us even if there is a great deal which we cannot understand. And when you come to read some of the writers of Shakespeare's age and see that in them the laughter is often brutal, the horror of tragedy often coarse and crude, you will wonder more than ever how Shakespeare made his laughter so sweet and sunny, and how, instead of revolting us, he touches our hearts with his horror and pain.
About eleven years passed after Shakespeare left Stratford before he returned there again. But once having returned, he often paid visits to his old home. And he came now no more as a poor wild lad given to poaching. He came as a man of wealth and fame. He bought the best house in Stratford, called New Place, as well as a good deal of land. So before John Shakespeare died he saw his family once more important in the town.
Then as the years went on Shakespeare gave up all connection with London and the theater and settled down to a quiet country life. He planted trees, managed his estate, and showed that though he was the world's master-poet he was a good business man too. Everything prospered with him, his two daughters married well, and comfortably, and when not more than forty-three he held his first grandchild in his arms. It may be he looked forward to many happy peaceful years when death took him. He died of fever, brought on, no doubt, by the evil smells and bad air by which people lived surrounded in those days before they had learned to be clean in house and street.
Shakespeare was only fifty-two when he died. It was in the springtime of 1616 that he died, breathing his last upon
"The uncertain glory of an April day
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun
And by and by a cloud takes all away."*
*Two Gentlemen of Verona.
He was buried in Stratford Parish Church, and on his grave was placed a bust of the poet. That bust and an engraving in the beginning of the first great edition of his works are the only two real portraits of Shakespeare. Both were done after his death, and yet perhaps there is no face more well known to us than that of the greatest of all poets.
Beneath the bust are written these lines:
"Stay, passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read, if thou-canst, whom envious Death hath plast
Within this monument; Shakespeare with whome
Quick nature dide: whose name doth deck ys tombe,
Far more than cost, sith all yt he hath writt,
Leaves living art but page to serve his witt."
Upon a slab over the grave is carved:
"Good frend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones."
And so our greatest poet lies not beneath the great arch of Westminster but in the quiet church of the little country town in which he was born.Next