About Shakspere by Edwin Watts Chubb

William Shakspere

From the portrait by Martin Droeshout

What would we not give to be able to relate a half-dozen good anecdotes about Shakspere? It is true there are traditions, the best known of which is the story that he poached deer in the park of Sir Thomas Lucy. Men have discussed the pros and cons of this deer-stealing tradition with a gravity and fulness worthy of a weightier cause. Suppose he did engage in the exciting sport of worrying a nobleman who had a game preserve. Does that fact blacken the youth's character? It is said the students at Oxford were the most notorious poachers in the kingdom, although expulsion was the penalty. Dr. Forman relates how a student who afterwards became a bishop was more given to poaching than to study.

What do we know about the life of Shakspere? We know that he was born at Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, that he died there in 1616, April 23. Some years ago I stood in the house which is reputed to be the place of his birth; over 20,000 pilgrims from all lands each year pay their shilling for the privilege of going through that house; the town corporation has purchased the property and controls it; the place has been photographed until the reading world is familiar with the picture,—and yet we do not positively know that Shakspere was born in that house. For Shakspere's father owned two houses at the time of the son's birth; in which of the two he lived at this time we can but guess. We suppose he lived in the Henley Street house, for it was the better of the two houses and the Shakspere family was prospering when William was born. The house itself has been remodeled. I think it is Sidney Lee who says that the only thing that remains as it was in Shakspere's time is the cellar. We do not know the day of Shakspere's birth. In Holy Trinity Church one may look into the book containing the baptismal record of the babe, William. He was baptized on April 26 and as children were usually baptized three days after their birth we infer he was born April 23. We know that he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior; that in early manhood he went to London; that he became an actor, dramatist, manager of a theater; that in 1597 he bought New Place, the stateliest residence in Stratford; that he lived in Stratford during the last years of his life as a highly esteemed and worthy man, and that he died in 1616 and was buried in Trinity Church. These are the facts in the records of Shakspere's life. They, however, are not the important facts. The main fact in his life is his work, the matchless collection of literary masterpieces that bear the imprint of his genius. It is also well to keep in mind that our paucity of definite documentary records is not characteristic of Shakspere alone. We may know little of Shakspere, but we know less of Marlowe, his most brilliant competitor.

It is because we know so little of fact in the life of Shakspere that we delight to let fancy paint its charming pictures. We are led into the old Grammar School which Shakspere in all probability attended. Tradition points out the desk at which he used to sit. We can infer what he studied. The name of the Latin grammar then used we can deduce from his quoting a Latin sentence just as it was misquoted in Lilly's grammar. Artists have painted from imagination the picture of the boy Shakspere. Poets have wandered over the Warwickshire region and in their mind's eye have seen the youthful bard as he walked over the same picturesque region. In Midsummer-Night's Dream we read

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.—

and we see the young Shakspere, keen-eyed, observant, reveling in the beauty of nature. In Macbeth we read

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.—

and we recall that Kenilworth and Warwick Castles are near Stratford and we see the boyish Shakspere as he walks about these magnificent testimonies to the might and power of feudal England, or perhaps mingling with the crowd when Royalty has come to Kenilworth to be entertained by the lavish Leicester. So, too, when we find in Much Ado About Nothing

The pleasant'st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
And greedily devour the treacherous bait,—

we have a picture before us of the boy standing on the banks of the placid Avon, enjoying the sports of boyhood and unconsciously receiving impressions that shall later be reproduced to adorn with freshest imagery the poetry of the world's greatest genius.

After years of labor the scholars of the world have scraped together enough definite information to make the Life of Shakspere, as Mr. Raleigh puts it, "assume the appearance of a scrap-heap of respectable size." But to us the great fact in the life of Shakspere is that he has given us his masterpieces. Perhaps it is just as well that we know so little about the facts in his life. We have all the more time to study his works. About their quality there is little of disagreement. Three hundred years ago Ben Jonson wrote

... I confess thy writings to be such
As neither man nor muse can praise too much,—

and the critic of to-day is saying the same thing, only he uses two volumes instead of two lines to say it. It is true an occasional voice, like that of Tolstoy's, will be heard in protest, but the protest and the critic are both likely to be forgotten before the consensus of three centuries shall be set aside.

Shakspere lives and shall live as long as the human race shall delight in the study of the human heart, not because of the chastity and clearness of his diction, not because of the supremacy of his imagination, nor because of the variety of his melodious verse,—not even because of the matchless combination of all these charms; but the Bard of Stratford lives and shall live because his sanity enabled him to see the "God of things as they are," and his passion penetrated into the deepest sorrows and rose to the highest aspirations of the human heart,—and throughout all this sympathizing with goodness and while despising the depraved yet pitying with a heart of love.

No system-maker or formula-builder can account for Shakspere. Genius is ever a miracle. However, we can study the environment in which genius moves and has its being. When we ask ourselves how does it happen that the plays of Shakspere breathe such a wholesome and vigorous morality, we are led to two conclusions,—first, that the England of Shakspere's time was a wholesome and vigorous England; second, that the man Shakspere was sound to the core.

The close of the sixteenth century is one of the most remarkable periods in the history of the world. Indeed, so striking is the intellectual activity of this age that lately an eminent scientist advanced the hypothesis that some electric influence, some magnetic current must have let itself loose to work upon the destinies of the world in the production of great men. For in that period in Italy we find Tasso, the greatest of modern epic poets; then too lived Galileo and Kepler, the astronomers; in France we find the philosophic essayist, Montaigne; in Spain the world-renowned Cervantes, the author of the immortal Don Quixote; in England both Bacon and Shakspere, beside a host of other writers, generals, admirals and artists. This same age is the most flourishing period in Mahometan India; so, too, in China, in Japan, and even in far away Persia we find an unusual degree of intellectual activity.

The England of Shakspere! The phrase suggests a train of associations that kindle the imagination. The age of literature, war, conquest, adventure, and achievement. The era of Edmund Spenser, "called from faeryland to struggle 'gainst dark ways;" of Sir Philip Sidney, the scholar, the courtier, the gentleman; of Sir Walter Raleigh, author, knight, and explorer; of Bacon, "the wisest, meanest, brightest of mankind." It is the time when in the Golden Hind Drake is circumnavigating the globe; when Hawkins is exploring the Indies, and Frobisher is becoming the hero of the Northwest passage; the age of marvelous tales told by intrepid explorers and adventurers returning from America, a land whose fountains renewed youth and whose rivers flowed over sands of gold. It is the era of English sea-dogs pillaging Spanish provinces in spite of imperial manifestos,—above all, it is the age of the Spanish Armada.

To recall what this means it is necessary to remember that Spain was the great dominating empire of the sixteenth century. Philip II, the Duke of Alva, the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, condemn Spain's power in this period. But one midsummer morn all England awoke to the glorious news that the Invincible Armada lay at the bottom of the sea. England had triumphed, and now for the first time national life dreamed of the possibility of leadership in the great game of world-politics. The atmosphere was electric with new life. In rural England along lanes flanked with green hedges Englishmen walked with bosoms swelling with new pride, in bustling London vigorous burghers strode the city's streets with hearts pulsating with new warmth, and everywhere the eyes of all Englishmen flashed with new fire.

Could a soul so sensitive as Shakspere's live in such an atmosphere and not be influenced by it? Listen to him as he pays his beautiful, patriotic tribute to England's national glory:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world.

And the second cause, we say, is the personality of the man himself. Shakspere wrote pure and lofty poetry because his was a pure and lofty nature. I know the disparagers of Shakspere and the advocates of the Baconian theory make much of the traditional wildness of Shakspere's youth. The common argument is that a man who is charged with the poaching of deer in his youth is too bad to write good poetry, therefore Bacon wrote Shakspere. Was Bacon an angel? By the same process of reasoning Burns could not have written the Cotter's Saturday Night. But I deny that Shakspere was profligate, and in making this denial I need not prove the impeccability of Shakspere. But his life was essentially pure, his heart good, because the influence of the life is sane and wholesome.

Not alone the greatest intellect of his time, of all times, but also the greatest heart, was that possessed by this Warwickshire poet. As a man thinketh in his heart so he is. As Shakspere was, so he wrote. This crystalline wholesome water dashing over this rocky cliff did not have its origin in yonder pool. Pure water does not flow from a mud-puddle. Here is a man who in twenty years writes in round numbers forty productions—the task of Hercules. The product of the man attests the nobility of his soul. No man can labor for twenty years without putting his stamp upon his work. Shakspere was no bar-room brawler, no prodigal spender of time and substance in riotous living. He lived to the mature age of fifty-two and died a well-to-do man. The prodigals of the world do not retire with a competency. I repeat that Shakspere was not impeccable; he was no Puritan; but we cannot think of the creator of Hamlet, Ophelia, Othello, Desdemona, Cordelia, Portia, Rosalind, Miranda, and Prospero as other than a man of a contrite spirit and a pure heart. As he surpassed his contemporaries in breadth and loftiness of intellect, so too he surpassed them in the reach and vigor of his moral feeling.

We cannot believe that this man who penetrated deeper than others into the mystery of life missed the meaning of his own life. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter—the power that moves the world is not brilliancy of intellect; it is purity of heart. Nobility of character is the essence of powerful personality. Lincoln is greater than Webster, Washington than Jefferson, not through greater mental grasp, but because of a purer spiritual essence. The world without takes its meaning and color from the world within. Shakspere saw a world of pure passion and wholesome sanity because his world within was pure and sane.