Encyclopędia Britannica's Guide to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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The following document is one of several portraits presented in Edmund Malone's Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the English Stage (1800). In addition to a general examination of the origins of theatre in England, Malone's work includes descriptions of Shakespeare, Richard Burbage (which Malone spells Burbadge, with the note "In writing this performer's name I have followed the spelling used by his brother, who was a witness to his will; but the name ought rather to be written Burbidge, [as it often formerly was,] being manifestly an abbreviation or corruption of Borough-bridge"), John Heminge, William Kempe, Henry Condell (in Malone spelled Cundall), and others of Shakespeare's contemporaries. The document that follows is presented in modern typography for ease in reading but retains the original spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and italics.

In his portrait of Shakespeare, Malone begins by quoting from a manuscript by the antiquarian and writer John Aubrey that was discovered in the Ashmolean Museum.

MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

"William Shakespeare's father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy, he exercised his father's trade; but when he killed a calfe, he would do it in a high style, and make a speech. This William, being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse about 18. and was an actor at one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. Now Ben Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor. He began early to make essays in dramatique poetry, which at that time was very lowe, and his plays took well. He was a handsome well shaped man; verie good company, and of a very ready, and pleasant, and smooth witt. The humour of the constable in A Midsommer-night Dreame he happened to take at Crendon in Bucks, (I think it was Midsommer-night that he happened to be there;) which is the road from London to Stratford; and there was living that constable about 1642. when I came first to Oxon. Mr. Jos. Howe is of the parish, and knew him. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men wherever they came. One time as he was at the taverne at Stratford, Mr. Combes, an old usurer, was to be buryed; he makes then this extemporary epitaph upon him:

'Ten in the hundred the Devill allowes,
`But Combes will have twelve, he sweares and he vowes:
`If any one aske who lies in this tomb,
`Hoh! quoth the Devill, 'tis my John o'Comb.'

"He was wont to go to his native country once a yeare, I think I have been told that he left near 3ool., [Editor's Note: i.e., 300 pounds] to a sister. He understood latin pretty well; for he had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the country."

Let us now proceed to examine the several parts of this account.

The first assertion, that our poet's father was a butcher, has been thought unworthy of credit, because "not only contrary to all other tradition, but, as it may seem, to the instrument in the heralds-office," But for my own part, I think, this assertion, (which it should be observed is positively affirmed on the information of his neighbours, procured probably at an early period,) and the received account of his having been a wool-stapler, by no means inconsistent. Dr. Farmer has illustrated a passage in Hamlet from information derived from a person who was at once a wool-man and butcher; and, I believe, few occupations can be named, which are more naturally connected with each other. Mr. Rowe first mentioned the tradition that our poet's father was a dealer in wool, and his account is corroborated by a circumstance which I have just now learned. In one of the windows of a building in Stratford which belonged to the Shakspeare family, are the arms of the merchants of the staple;--Nebule, on a chief gules, a lion passant, or; and the same arms, I am told, may be observed in the church at Stratford, in the fret-work over the arch which covers the tomb of John de Clopton, who was a merchant of the staple, and father of Sir Hugh Clopton, lord-mayor of London, by whom the bridge over the Avon was built. But it should seem from the records of Stratford that John Shakspeare, about the year 1579. at which time his son was fifteen years old, was by no means in affluent circumstances; and why may we not suppose that at that period he endeavoured to support his numerous family by adding the trade of a butcher to that of his principal business; though at a subsequent period he was enabled, perhaps by his son's bounty, to discontinue the less respectable of these occupations? I do not, however, think it at all probable, that a person who had been once bailiff of Stratford should have suffered any of his children to have been employed in the servile office of killing calves.

Mr. Aubrey proceeds to tell us, that William Shakspeare came to London and began his theatrical career, according to his conjecture, when he was about eighteen years old;--but as his merit as an actor is the principal object of our present disquisition, I shall postpone my observations on this paragraph, till the remaining part of these anecdotes has been considered.

We are next told, that "he began early to make essays in dramatique poetry, which at that time was very lowe, and his playes took well."

On these points, I imagine, there cannot be much variety of opinion. Mr. Aubrey was undoubtedly mistaken in his conjecture, (for he gives it only as conjecture,) that our poet came to London at eighteen; for as he had three children born at Stratford in 1583 and 1584. it is very improbable that he should have left his native town before the latter year. I think it most probable that he did not come to London before the year 1586. when he was twenty-two years old. When he produced his first play, has not been ascertained; but if Spenser alludes to him in his Tears of the Muses, Shakspeare must have exhibited some piece in or before 1590. at which time he was twenty-six years old; and though many have written for the publick before. they had attained that time of life, any theatrical performance produced at that age, would, I think, sufficiently justify Mr. Aubrey in saying that he began early to make essays in dramatick poetry. In a word, we have no proof that he did not woo the dramatick Muse, even so early as in the year 1587 or 1588. in the first of which years he was but twenty-three: and therefore till such proof shall be produced, Mr. Aubrey's assertion founded apparently on the information of those who lived very near the time, is entitled to some weight.

"He was a handsome well-shaped man, verie good company, and of a very ready, and pleasant, and smooth witt."

I suppose none of my readers will find any difficulty in giving full credit to this part of the account. Mr. Aubrey, I believe, is the only writer, who has particularly mentioned the beauty of our poet's person; and there being no contradictory testimony on the subject, he may here be safely relied on. All his contemporaries who have spoken of him, concur in celebrating the gentleness of his manners, and the readiness of his wit. "As he was a happy imitator of nature, (say his fellow comedians,) so was he a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together; and what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." "My gentle Shakspeare," is the compellation used to him by Ben Jonson. "He was indeed (says his old antagonist) honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped. Sufflaminandus erat, as Augstus said of Haterius." So also in his verses on our poet:

"----Look how the father's face
"Lives in his issue, even so the race
"Of Shakspeare's mind and manners brightly shines
"In his well-torned and true-filed lines."

In like manner he is represented by Spenser (if in The Tears of the Muses he is alluded to, which, it must be acknowledged, is extremely probable,) under the endearing description of "our pleasant Willy," and "that same gentle spirit, from whose pen flow copious streams of honey and nectar." In a subsequent page I shall have occasion to quote another of his contemporaries, who is equally lavish in praising the uprightness of his conduct and the gentleness and civility of his demeanour. And conformable to all these ancient testimonies is that of Mr. Rowe, who informs us, from the traditional accounts received from his native town, that our poet's "pleasurable wit and good-nature engaged him in the acquaintance and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of his neighbourhood at Stratford."

A man, whose manners were thus engaging, whose wit was thus ready, and whose mind was stored with such a plenitude of ideas and such a copious assemblage of images as his writings exhibit, could not but have been what he is represented by Mr. Aubrey, a delightful companion. "The humour of the constable in A Midsommer-night-Dreame he happened to take at Crendon in Bucks, (I think it was Midsomer-night that he happened to be there:) which is the road from London to Stratford; and there was living that constable about 1642. when I came first to Oxon. Mr. Jos. Howe is of the parish, and knew him."

It must be acknowledged that there is here a slight mistake, there being no such character as a constable in A Midsummer-Night's Dream. The person in contemplation undoubtedly was DOGBERRY in Much Ado about Nothing. But this mistake of a name does not, in my apprehension, detract in the smallest degree from the credit of the fact itself; namely, that our poet in his admirable character of a foolish constable had in view an individual who lived in Crendon or Grendon, (for it is written both ways,) a town in Buckinghamshire, about thirteen miles from Oxford. Leonard Digges, who was Shakspeare's contemporary, has fallen into a similar errour; for in his eulogy on our poet, he has supposed the character of MALVOLIO, which is found in Twelfth Night, to be in Much Ado about Nothing.

As some account of the person from whom Mr. Aubrey derived this anecdote, who was of the same college with him at Oxford, may tend to establish its credit, I shall transcribe from Mr. Warton's preface to his Life of Sir Thomas Pope, such notices of Mr. Josias Howe, as he has been able to recover.

"He was born at Crendon in Bucks, [about the year 1611] and elected a scholar of Trinity College June 12. 1632. admitted a fellow, being then bachelor of arts, May 26. 1637. By Hearne he is called a great cavalier and loyalist, and a most ingenious man. [footnote: Rob. Glouc. GLOSS. p. 669.] He appears to have been a general and accomplished scholar, and in polite literature one of the ornaments of the university.--In 1644 he preached before King Charles the First, at Christ Church cathedral, Oxford. The sermon was printed, and in red letters, by his majesty's special command.--Soon after 1646. he was ejected from his fellowship by the presbyterians; and restored in 1660. He lived forty-two years, greatly respected, after his restitution, and arriving at the age of ninety, died fellow of the college where he constantly resided, August 28. 1701." Mr. Thomas Howe, the father of this Mr. Josias Howe, (as I learn from Wood) was minister of Crendon, and contemporary with Shakspeare; and from him his son perhaps derived some information concerning our poet, which he might have communicated to his fellow-collegian, Aubrey. The anecdote relative to the constable of Crendon, however, does not stand on this ground, for we find that Mr. Josias Howe personally knew him, and that he was living in 1642.

I now proceed to the remaining part of these anecdotes:

"Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men wherever they came. One time as he was at the taverne at Stratford, Mr. Combes,[footnote: This custom of adding an s to many names, both in speaking and writing, was very common in the last age. Shakspeare's fellow-comedian, John Heminge, was always called Mr. Hemings by his contemporaries, and Lord Clarendon constantly writes Bishop Earles, instead of Bishop Earle. "S (says Camden in his Remaines, 4to. 1605.) also is joyned to most [Editor's Note: names] now, as Manors, Knoles, Crofts, Hilles, Combes," &c.]an old usurer, was to be buried;[footnote: Mr. Combe was buried at Stratford, July 12. 1614. The entry in the Register of that parish confirms the observation made above; for, though written by a clergyman, it stands thus: "July 12. 1614. Mr. John Combes, Gener."] he makes then this extemporary epitaph upon him:

`Ten in the hundred the devill allowes,
`But Combes will have twelve, he swears and he vowes:
`If any one aske,
[footnote: This appears to have been in our poet's time a common form in writing epitaphs. In one which he wrote on Sir Thomas Stanley, which has been given in Vol. I. p. 35. we again meet with it:
"Ask, who lies here," &c.
Again, in Ben Jonson's epitaph on his son:
"Rest in soft peace, and ask'd, say, here doth lie
"Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."]
who lies in this tomb,
`Hoh! quoth the devill, 'tis my John o'Combe.'

Little credit is due to Mr. Rowe's account of Shakspeare's having so incensed that gentleman by an epitaph which he made on him in his presence, at a tavern in Stratford, that the old gentleman never forgave him. And Mr. Aubrey's account of this matter, which I had not then seen, fully confirms what I suggested on the subject: for here we find, that the epitaph was made after Combe's death. Nor is this sprightly effusion inconsistent with Shakspeare's having lived in a certain degree of familiarity with that gentleman; whom he might have respected for some qualities, though he indulged himself in a sudden and playful censure of his inordinate attention to the acquirement of wealth, at a time when that ridicule could not affect him who was the object of it.

Mr. Steevens has justly observed, that the verses exhibited by Mr. Rowe, contain not a jocular epitaph, but a malevolent prediction; and every reader will, I am sure, readily agree with him, that it is extremely improbable that Shakspeare should have poisoned the hour of confidence and friendship by producing one of the severest censures on one of his company, and so wantonly and publickly express his doubts concerning the salvation of one of his fellow creatures. The foregoing more accurate statement entirely vindicates our poet from this imputation.

These extemporary verses having, I suppose, not been set down in writing by their author, and being inaccurately transmitted to London, appear in an intirely different shape in Braithwaite's Remaines, and there we find them affixed to a tomb erected by Mr. Combe in his life-time. I have already shewn that no such tomb was erected by Mr. Combe, and therefore Braithwaite's story is as little to be credited as Mr. Rowe's. That such various representations should be made of verses of which the author probably never gave a written copy, and perhaps never thought of after he had uttered them, is not at all extraordinary. Who has not, in his own experience, met with similar variations in the accounts of a transaction which passed but a few months before he had occasion to examine minutely and accurately into the real state of the fact?

In further support of Mr. Aubrey's exhibition of these verses, it may be observed, that in his copy the first couplet is original; in Mr. Rowe's exhibition of them it is borrowed from preceding epitaphs. In the fourth line, Ho (not OH ho, as Mr. Rowe has it,) was in Shakspeare's age the appropriate exclamation of ROBIN GOODFELLOW, alias PUCKE, alias HOBGOBLIN. [See Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry, Vol. III. p. 202.]

Mr. Aubrey informs us lastly, that Shakspeare "was wont to go to his native country once a yeare. I thinke I have been told that he left near 3ool. to a sister. He understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country."

Many traditional anecdotes, though not perfectly accurate, contain an adumbration of the truth. It is observable that Mr. Aubrey speaks here with some degree of doubt;--"I think I have been told," and his memory, or that of his informer, led him into an errour with respect to the person to whom our poet bequeathed this legacy, who, we find from his will, was his daughter, not his sister: but though Aubrey was mistaken as to the person, his information with respect to the amount of the legacy was perfectly correct; for 3ool. was the precise sum which Shakspeare left to his second daughter, Judith.

In like manner; I am strongly inclined to think that the last assertion contains, though not the truth, yet something like it: I mean, that Shakspeare had been employed for some time in his younger years as a teacher in the country; though Dr. Farmer has incontestably proved, that he could not have been a teacher of Latin. I have elsewhere suggested my opinion, that before his coming to London he had acquired some share of legal knowledge in the office of a petty country conveyancer, or in that of the steward of some manerial court. It is not necessary here to repeat the reasons on which that opinion is founded. If he began to apply to this study at the age of eighteen, two years afterwards he might have been sufficiently conversant with conveyances to have taught others the forms of such legal assurances as are usually prepared by country attorneys; and perhaps spent two or three years in this employment before he removed from Stratford to London. Some uncertain rumour of this kind might have continued to the middle of the last century; and by the time it reached Mr. Aubrey, his original occupation was changed from a scrivener's to that of a schoolmaster.

I now proceed to the more immediate object of our present inquiry; Shakspeare's merit as an actor.

"Being inclined naturally (says Mr. Aubrey) to poetry and acting, he came to London, I guesse about 18. and was an actor at one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. Now Ben Jonson never was a good actor, but an excellent instructor."

The first observation that I shall make on this account is, that the latter part of it, which informs us that Ben Jonson was a bad actor, is incontestably confirmed by one of the comedies of Decker [Editor's Note: Thomas Dekker]; and therefore, though there were no other evidence, it might be plausibly inferred that Mr. Aubrey's information concerning our poet's powers on the stage was not less accurate. But in this instance I am not under the necessity of resting on such an inference; for I am able to produce the testimony of a contemporary in support of Shakspeare's histrionick merit. In the preface to a pamphlet entitled Kinde-Hartes Dreame, published in December 1592. the author, Henry Chettle, who was himself a dramatick writer, and well acquainted with the principal poets and players of the time, thus speaks of Shakspeare:

"The other, [footnote: By the words The other, was meant 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 cafe, the author [Robert Greene] being dead,) I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault; because my selfe have seene his demeanour no less civil than he EXCELLENT in the qualitie he professes: besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honestie, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art."

To those who are not conversant with the language of our old writers, it may be proper to observe, that the words, "the qualitie he professes," particularly denote his profession as an actor. The latter part of the paragraph indeed, in which he is praised as a good man and an elegant writer, shews this: however, the following passage in Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, 1579. in which the very same words occur, will put this matter beyond a doubt. "Over-lashing in apparell (says Gosson) is so common a fault, that the verye hyerlings of some of our plaiers, which stand at the reversion of vi s. [Editor's Note: i.e., six shillings] by the weeke, jet under gentlemen's noses in sutes of silke, exercising themselves in prating on the stage, and common scoffing when they come abrode; where they looke askance at every man of whom the sonday before they begged an almes. I speak not this, as though every one that professeth the qualitie, so abused him selfe; for it is well knowen, that some of them are sober, discreet, properly learned, honest householders, and citizens well thought on amonge their neighbours at home, though the pride of their shadowes (I meane those hange-byes whome they succour with stipend) cause them to bee somewhat talked of abrode." [footnote: In the margin this cautious puritan adds--"Some players modest, if I be not deceived."]

Thus early was Shakspeare celebrated as an actor, and thus unfounded was the information which Mr. Rowe obtained on this subject. Wright, a more diligent enquirer, and who had better opportunities of gaining theatrical intelligence, had said about ten years before, that he had "heard our author was a better poet than an actor;" but this description, though probably true, may still leave him a considerable portion of merit in the latter capacity: for if the various powers and peculiar excellencies of all the actors from his time to the present, were united in one man, it may well be doubted, whether they would constitute a performer whose merit should entitle him to "bench by the side" of Shakspeare as a poet.

A passage indeed in Lodge's Incarnate Devills of the age, 1596. has been pointed out, as levelled at Shakspeare's performance of the Ghost in Hamlet. But this in my apprehension is a mistake. The ridicule intended to be conveyed by the passage in question was, I have no doubt, aimed at the actor who performed the part of the Ghost in some miserable play which was produced before Shakspeare commenced either actor or writer. That such a play once existed, I have already shewn to be highly probable; and the tradition transmitted by Betterton, [Editor's Note: Thomas Betterton] that his performance of the Ghost in his own Hamlet was his chef d'oeuvre, adds support to my opinion.

That Shakspeare had a perfect knowledge of his art, is proved by the instructions which are given to the player in Hamlet, and by other passages in his works; which in addition to what I have already stated, incline me to think that the traditional account transmitted by Mr. Rowe, relative to his powers on the stage, has been too hastily credited. In the celebrated scene between Hamlet and his mother, she thus addresses him:

"----Alas, how is't with you?
"That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
"And with the incorporeal air do hold discourse?
"Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
"And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
"Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
"Starts up, and stands on end.--Whereon do you look
"Ham. On him! on him! look you, how pale he glares!
"His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
"Would make them capable. Do not look upon me,
"Lest with this piteous action, you convert
"My stern effects: then what I have to do
"Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood."

Can it be imagined that he would have attributed these lines to Hamlet, unless he was confident that in his own part he could give efficacy to that piteous action of the Ghost, which he has so forcibly described? or that the preceding lines spoken by the Queen, and the description of a tragedian in King Richard III. could have come from the pen of an ordinary actor?

"Rich. Come, cousin, can'st thou quake and
change thy colour?
"Murther thy breath in middle of a word?
"And then again begin, and flop again,
"As if thou wert distraught, and mad with terror?
"Buck. Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
"Speak, and look big, and pry on every side,
"Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
"Intending deep suspicion: ghastly looks
"Are at my service, like enforced smiles;
"And both are ready in their offices,
"At any time, to grace my stratagems."

I do not, however, believe, that our poet played parts of the first rate, though he probably distinguished himself by whatever he performed. If the names of the actors prefixed to Every Man in his Humour were arranged in the same order as the persons of the drama, he must have represented Old Knowell; and if we may give credit to an anecdote he was the Adam in his own As you like it. Perhaps he excelled in representing old men. The following contemptible lines written by a contemporary, about the year 1611. might lead us to suppose that he also acted Duncan in Macbeth, and the parts of King Henry the Fourth, and King Henry the Sixth:

"To our English Terence,
Mr. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
"Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing,
"Hadst thou not play'd some kingly parts in sport,
"Thou hadst been a companion for a king.
"And been a king among the meaner sort.
"Some others raile, but raile as they think fit,
"Thou hast no railing but a raigning wit;
"And honesty thou sow'st, which they do reape,
"So to increase their stock which they do keepe."

The Scourge of Folly, by John Davies, of Hereford, no date.

[Editor's Note: Here the text continues with a description of Richard Burbage (or Burbadge, as Malone spells it.]


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